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The lazy, hazy days of summer are approaching, which makes it the perfect time to hit the beach or post up in the park with a great book. We consider the enduring appeal of page-turning thrillers, novels that take us to faraway locales, and revealing biographies.
See our guests recommendations in our full 2014 Summer Reading List.
- Rose Dawson Director of Libraries, Alexandria Library
- Alan Cheuse Book Reviewer, All Things Considered; Author, "A Trance After Breakfast;" Author, "To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming"; and University Professor of Writing at George Mason University
- Barbara Hoffert Editor, Prepub Alert, Library Journal
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The lazy hazy days of summer, they're rapidly approaching. And for many of us that means it's time to take a deep dive into that pile of books stacked up on the nightstand. The thriller that sends chills up your spine even on the hottest afternoon, the biography of a political figure beloved or reviled or the novel that challenges you just enough without overtaxing your mind as you lounge poolside.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd if you don't have a ready-made pile awaiting you, fear not, we've assembled a trio of book lovers who've got your summer reading bases covered. And if you do have a stack already, well, it's about to grow because joining us in studio is Rose Dawson, director of Libraries with the Alexandria, Va. Public Library system. Rose Dawson, welcome.
MS. ROSE DAWSONThank you.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Alan Cheuse. He's a contributor and reviewer for NPR's "All Things Considered" and author of many works of fiction, including the recent collection "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories." He's also a professor of creating writing at George Mason University. Alan Cheuse, good to see you again.
MR. ALAN CHEUSEPleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City is Barbara Hoffert, editor of Library Journal's Prepub Alert, which keep librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Hi, Barbara. How's it going?
MS. BARBARA HOFFERTIt's great. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd we're more than happy to have you, Barbara. So we'll start with you. Let's start with a literary tale. That's where we all are mentally if not actually, "The Vacationers." Is this a chronicle of a trip we'd likely want to go along on in real life?
HOFFERTWell, I don't know if you'd actually want to go on this trip in real life, but you'd want to go on it as a reader. It features a couple named Jim and Franny. It's their 35th wedding anniversary but he has cheated on her and -- with someone at his job and he has lost his job. She's understandably angry. Their daughter has just graduated from high school. She's, you know, a teenager who doesn't like anyone right now and is very eager to dump her virginity. Her older brother...
NNAMDII'm seeing this book already, yes.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
HOFFERTHer brother -- her older brother is in -- sort of still not quite committing and irresponsible and has an older girlfriend the family doesn't like. And then Franny's good friend Charles and his husband are debating and aren't quite sure about -- unsettled about adopting. So of course they all go on vacation together to Mallorca. And as you can imagine, there are -- there's relationships coming and going and splits and forms. And Sylvia meets the perfect young man in her tutor. But does it really work out?
HOFFERTAnd what's really going to happen with that baby and what's really going to happen with Franny and Jim? It's a really lovely smart and heartfelt novel of social manners that's refreshingly uncynical without being a Hallmark card.
NNAMDIEmma Straub's "The Vacationers." Emma Straub will be reading from and signing "The Vacationers" at Politics and Prose. That's just up the street from our studios at 1515 Connecticut Avenue Northwest. She'll be there this evening at 7:00 pm. So if you're eager to get your hands on the book and maybe get it signed by Emma Straub, you may want to go there this evening.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation right now, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What's on your summer reading list this year? Share titles new or old that you have recently read or want to read soon, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Rose Dawson, as schools start to let out and people start thinking about taking vacations, do you notice seasonal shifts in what library patrons are looking for?
DAWSONAbsolutely. The public is -- for summer reading for them is basically getting a chance to do that light fun reading or that book that was too long and you don't want to be interrupted. You know, you really want to get a chance to do it. And so the airport is a perfect place and the beach. So the reading trends tend to change a little.
NNAMDIIs that the kind of book people would want to read this time of year? Why?
DAWSONNow this is a gripping -- now don't let the size of the book fool you. It's over 800 pages however, it is a real page turner because of the fact that you have -- Penn Cage is this mayor of Natchez. And he is trying to solve the murder of Viola Turner who happens to be the old colored nurse of his father. And Penn has to solve this because his dad has now been accused of the murder.
NNAMDIWoo. Seven hundred (sic) pages, you say?
DAWSONYes, but it ties into the civil rights. In the history of the civil rights so you're talking about the Klan, you're talking about the deacons of defense and those events that took place in '64 -- from '64 to '68. It convinces you that somehow what's going on in this book are tied into the assassination of Kennedy and King.
NNAMDIWhoa. "Natchez Burning" by Greg Iles. Is that how you pronounce his last name?
NNAMDIGreg Iles. You'll want to take that to the beach, especially if you've got a lot of time on your hands. Alan, they may not be relegated to the summer months for you, but thrillers are popular with lots of readers this time of year. What titles have stood out for you recently?
CHEUSESome really terrific books, although I should say the answer -- if I had my choice I would do nothing but thrillers. It's like, you know, a banquet of desserts that you're always promised on a certain birthday.
NNAMDIYou can't close them. You can't get to sleep at night because you want to finish them.
CHEUSEWell, one of the best historical spy novelists in the country, Alan Furst, has a new book coming out in June. It's called "Midnight in Europe." It's part of -- I guess this is about his 14th, 15th or maybe even 16th novel in a series about spies and counterspies in Europe on the verge of World War II.
CHEUSEThis one focuses on the Spanish Civil War and the efforts of some Spanish left wingers who are trying to steal supplies from the Russians in order to bring weapons to Spain that the Spanish will be able to use against Franco's army. It's called "Midnight in Europe" and it's really quite terrific. It'll keep you up way past midnight.
CHEUSEAnd David Ignatius, who is one of our local treasures who writes for the Washington Post...
NNAMDIThe Washington Post, sure.
CHEUSE...about mostly international matters, has written a novel about a new CIA chief -- it's called "The Director" -- who comes into the office and within a week of taking over the job discovers there's a mole in the agency who is apparently using all of their internet capacity to bring down a major international bank because he's a kind of Snowden-like character by way of Thomas Pynchon. He doesn't like international banking because it veers too much towards people with money.
NNAMDIOkay. Anything you -- what thrillers have you been looking at Barbara Hoffert?
HOFFERTI don't read a lot in the thriller genre but I'd like to cite a book that I think is still thrilling and politically engaged, which I think is true of the best thrillers. Ward Just has a new novel coming out called "American Romantic." Actually, I'm sorry, it's already out. And, you know, he was a one-time journalist and author of political historical fiction like "The National Book Award Finals "Echo House."
HOFFERTAnd this particular book is sort of a sweeping view of 20th century U.S. diplomacy. And it starts out in the 1960s Indochina where, as I said, and I'll have to quote this, "their army was called the guerrilla force. Ours was called the military assistance command." And there's an eager young guy in intelligence who actually sort of blows an opportunity to meet with the enemy and try to get some sort of resolution to the affair. He actually realizes afterwards how naive he was in thinking that he could ever have accomplished that.
HOFFERTAnd after that he's sort of relegated to, you know, easier posts. He's several decades worth of traveling, gets married but cannot forget a German woman he has met in Vietnam. And that is an important fact because she is reflecting again on World War II and the Holocaust, and actually asks him and asks herself many times, could nationality be destiny? And then she also says, Americans can do anything.
HOFFERTAnd as you're reading the book you start to wonder, well can Americans do anything? Are we shaped by historical forces? It's a really -- it really connects several decades worth of our history in a very thrilling sharp, fluidly-written way. And I think it'll be great for a lot of readers and for book clubs too.
NNAMDIAny thrillers you've been looking at, Rose Dawson?
DAWSONOther than sticking with the "Natchez Burning" because it is a mystery thriller. It's the one that has captivated me.
NNAMDIScandinavian thrillers, Alan, have been hot for a while now. But a new Nova Scotian novel you recommend might leave us cold this summer. What's at the heart of Howard Norman's latest work?
CHEUSEWell, Howard Norman's an American from Michigan actually. But he's had an interest in Nova Scotia and Canada at large for a long time when he was working as an anthropologist and writing for naturalist movies and such. He's adopted Nova Scotia as a kind of -- in the way Faulkner adopted Yoknapatawpha County. He's written some wonderful novels that come out of the foibles and daily rituals of the people who live there in that cold place.
CHEUSEThis one, I think, is the best he's done. It's called "Next Life Might Be Kinder." And it's about a man who moves into the best hotel in this little Nova Scotia town. And immediately after the wedding, the bellhop murders his wife.
NNAMDIThe hotel bellhop?
CHEUSEThe hotel bellhop murders this newly wed. And this man's life goes to pieces. And he begins to see his wife in the fog -- in the coastal fog as he walks along the beach in his misery.
NNAMDIEvery day -- every night.
CHEUSEEvery night. Every night, you know.
NNAMDIWoo. I'm reading this already. Calling off the rest of the show. We'll be -- no, okay. We'll...
CHEUSEIt's a wise and beautiful book.
NNAMDIQuestions about diversity in children's books are getting a lot of attention right now, and we'll discuss that issue during our kids and young adult edition of the show coming up in about a month. But I wonder what each of you makes about the state of diversity in literature overall. Do we -- can we all see ourselves reflected in the works available to us, Rose Dawson?
DAWSONI have to say that truthfully if you look at what had been published in the past -- I mean, I'm currently serving on the Coretta Scott King Book Award Committee. And in the past you would receive over 200 titles. And the number has gone down noticeably. And for me, for that award you have to be an African American author or illustrator in order to be eligible.
DAWSONSo of course that's why that pool is so small but you do have those titles that are being written but just not with the African American perspective. So we do have some folks who recognize that there's a story to be told, particularly the nonfiction work. And they happen to be authors who are Caucasian. And so you have to look at the diversity from the perspective of whether or not the African American vision is being portrayed, but also whether or not the actual tale is being told at all.
NNAMDISo there are works being written that reflect diversity. They're not just not necessarily being written by people who are minorities or African American in particular. Alan, your take.
CHEUSEI think you're correct in that numerically but I just finished reading an early July book by an African American writer named Breena Clarke. It's called "Angels Make Their Hope Here." And it's a fabulous novel. I reviewed an earlier novel of hers set in D.C. during the Civil War about a seamstress who works in a little shop in Georgetown. This is set in the Ramapo Hills in north Jersey. And it's about a conglomeration of -- an interracial community in the hills of people who are trying to make a good life in a place where they're relatively safe from the scourge of the south.
CHEUSEAnd it's really quite wonderful. It's raw life. It's a rough life. It's filled with love and hate and murder but it's -- she puts it together really rather effectively and beautifully. And the tone, somehow she's -- she convinces you in the language that you're listening to these people living there in the New Jersey hills in 1840.
NNAMDIRose Dawson, outside of the names like Walter Mosley, Zane, there are not a whole lot of other new names that have been coming across your desk, so to speak?
DAWSONWell, actually this book -- we are talking about adult titles here...
DAWSON...and that is this new debut novel by Cynthia Bond "Ruby" and I think that's one that's going to capture a lot of conversation and discussion over the summer.
NNAMDIWhat's "Ruby" about?
DAWSONNow "Ruby" is a tale of this -- Ruby Bell. She -- it's basically bad things happen to good people. And she is born into this family in which their -- her mother and her sisters were all mulattos. And so she's a very pretty girl. And you quickly can tell that there's just something not right about the fact that Ruby, because her mother has left her and gone onto New York and she's not passing, Papa Bell, her grandfather, has been convinced to let Ruby go stay with this white lady who will take care of her and brings her home on occasion.
DAWSONAnd, you know, there's just something not right about that and how this child is dressed up. And eventually you do find out that there's some horrible things going on where she is concerned. So the book starts out with Ruby coming back to Liberty Township where she grew up. And she's basically lost her mind. She's walking the streets. She's dirty, she's ragged. She's talking to herself. She's mumbling.
DAWSONAnd so -- but the story doesn't stop there. It has this beloved quality about it so the whole Toni Morrison thing. She's got what they call a hate who's following her around. And I just think anyone who -- it's such descriptive prose, this is one that I think is going to be winning some awards.
NNAMDIBarbara, on the question of diversity.
HOFFERTI think that while we have higher profile writers, African American and other people of color, if I happen to sit down at any one time and say, let me pull together a roundup this month of African American writers or Latino writers, I found myself often surprised that I'm not finding as many as I would expect. And so I still feel that as a book community we have work to do in that area.
HOFFERTAs far as my own reading recently, the best book I read by a person of color, and unfortunately it's not coming out until October, so I'll talk about it now and then I'll talk about it the next time I'm on your show. But I really want to pitch his book so I'll do it twice. It's by Marlon James who's a Jamaican American, "A Brief History of Seven Killings." It is about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in the 1970s in Jamaica right before the Smile Jamaica Concert and right before major elections were taking place.
HOFFERTAnd Marley turns out to be kind of a minor character because the really -- the major thing is it's Jamaica and the different communities and the different voices just -- Marlon James is a tremendous writer who I think we'll hear a lot more from. This is only his third novel. So I'm warning people to look out for it. But you have someone like that writing so well and I'd like to hear more of that.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. This is our summer reading show. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Is there a particular genre that you gravitate toward this time of year? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website kojoshow.org where you will find our recommendation or the recommendations of our panelists. That's at our website kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our summer reading show. We're talking with Alan Cheuse. He's a contributor and reviewer for NPR's All Things Considered, author of many works of fiction including the recent collection "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories." Alan is also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University. He joins us in studio with Rose Dawson, Director of Libraries with the Alexandria, Va. Public Library System.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios in New York is Barbara Hoffert, editor of Library Journals' Prepub Alert which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Rose, one genre that is popular at many local libraries is so-called urban lit. What is it? What distinguishes the works in that category?
DAWSONI think for our older listeners the thing that would resonate is the fact that the Donald Goines books.
DAWSONYes. And so it is a twist of...
NNAMDINot that I'm an older listener.
DAWSONWell, you know, I have to admit I read them as a teenager, you know.
DAWSONBut those are the -- it is that sort of information so it's a certain lifestyle or something that folks are familiar with that has been in this day and age they've added a certain level of sex and violence to it. And so they are very, very popular reads. And my staff tell me that it's very hard to keep them on the shelf.
DAWSONAnd one of the successes with them is the fact that they are now coming out in e-book format primarily because a lot of these authors have written independently. The technology has assisted with them getting their names out there, as we were talking about whether there are a lot of minority authors. These people have been successful in putting them in E-book format and then later being picked up as an author by a traditional publisher.
NNAMDIOne title you recommend is "The White House" and it's not the one we tend to think of in this town. Where does it take place?
DAWSONOh, no. Oh, no. We wouldn't want to compare this one to the White House we know. This is a book. It's what they call a tale in which -- a revenge tale. And you have this drug dealer who has been -- his drugs and his money have been stolen from the woman he loves. And he searches for her and he eventually finds her. And then it goes -- this is based on supposedly a true story events that took place in Detroit.
NNAMDIOkay. "White House" it's called. Not this one. We got a tweet from Josh who just -- who tweeted, "Just finished "On Such A Full Sea" by Chang-Rae Lee. Loved it and am now reading his other work." Barbara, graphic novels have caught on with readers of all ages. And to, I guess, illustrate that point you're recommending a title from a long time cartoonist turned first-time graphic novelist. What stood out for you about "Kill My Mother" apart from the arresting title?
HOFFERTYes, a very arresting title by Jules Feiffer in which we all know is multi-award winner and long, long time illustrator in "The Village Voice." I don't read in this format myself, though I know it's very popular among readers and in libraries. But I've always loved Jules Feiffer. And I had an opportunity actually to introduce him at an event I did at Book Expo America just last week.
HOFFERTAnd what I loved about this book was it's sort of set in the noir era 1930s. And actually the tag line is "like the movies they don't make anymore." And you really do feel like you're in the middle of The Big Sleep. It starts with sort of a very angry teenage daughter -- I mean, aren't they all I guess -- Annie who does want to kill her mother. Her mother seems to be neglecting her because she is working for a sort of swimming-in-drink private eye because she wants to discover who killed her policeman husband. And this whole plot sort of careens from there to World War II Hollywood and then through the South Pacific.
HOFFERTAnnie is now part of a -- doing a kind of reality TV show, if there was such a thing at that time, that's causing a great deal of -- getting a great deal of attention. And there's sort of all sorts of disparate characters often in disguise, often dissimulating, often reinventing themselves. And though it's kind of as hard-boiled as they come and you can really recognize that 1930s, 1940s noir feel, there's also moments of very contemporary issues creeping in of child abuse or of sexual dissimulation that make it feel up to date.
HOFFERTAnd it's -- you know, if you look at one Jules Feiffer strip you can just sing into them. They're fabulous. It's just like a whole wonderful series of them. It's -- they're -- it's good to the last line drawing.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How do you prefer to do your summer reading, paperback, hardcover, e-book? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Rose, some people prefer to read with a group which helps fuel the popularity of book clubs. You in Alexandria read as a city as well. I know it just wrapped up but tell us a little bit about the program.
DAWSONAll Alexandria reads is where we ask the community to all come together and read one book. And this year our title was "When Washington Was In Vogue." And that's because the library's celebrating its 75th year anniversary of the 1939 sit-in that took place at the Alexandria Library.
DAWSONYes. And so trying to keep with that particular theme, the committee selected this title because of the fact that it offered up the opportunity to have jazz and music and storytelling. And it fit in with the whole thing that was going on with the African American community at that time.
NNAMDIWashington, D.C. in the roaring '20s is what this is all about. Well, if we're not able to go back in time or get away ourselves in the summer months, Alan, taking a trip through the pages of a book can be the next best thing. First, let's go east. What chapter of history does "Night in Shanghai" delve into?
CHEUSEThat's Shanghai on the verge of the Japanese army taking over the city. And actually there's a deep connection in this novel to American jazzmen. And I learned...
CHEUSE...I learned this by reading the novel "Night in Shanghai" by Nicole Mones. The big syndicate that ran all of the bordellos and the gambling clubs and the racetracks, all the crime in Shanghai, would send people to the U.S. to recruit jazzmen. And they brought them over and gave them all the good accoutrements of life that was kind of difficult for these mostly black guys to acquire in the U.S. at the same time, houses and women and liquor and a great audience who loved to dance to American jazz.
CHEUSEAnd so one of the main characters in the novel is -- the main character that is an American jazzman who comes over and discovers this new world in Shanghai, which is also fraught with the deep worry and growing terror of the Japanese invasion. So it's quite dramatic. He gets caught up in a love affair with a girl whom the Chinese big crime kingpin posses. He owns this girl. And of course our jazzman gets mixed up with her in a lot of trouble.
NNAMDIAnd that's what jazzmen do.
CHEUSEWell, all men with good taste and bad fate I guess. But he -- I don't want to give it away but it's a really exciting novel. And the set decoration and the historical accuracies seem -- is really quite splendid.
NNAMDI"Night in Shanghai." Next we go way down under to Tasmania and even further back in history. What can we learn from "The Roving Party," Alan.
CHEUSEWell, actually it -- this is a novel that speaks to -- really to the question of diversity from another angle. It's a first novel by a young guy from Tasmania, which is this island state off the coast of Australia settled by Europeans in the early 19th century, settled for a thousand years before that by Aboriginals from Oceanic Islands who made their way there. And the main character is an Aboriginal who's raised as -- in European culture in the island. And he's called on by the Shaman warrior chief of -- who's gathered a couple of clans together to fight the Europeans.
CHEUSEAnd then the Europeans ask him to fight with them and he has to make a choice. And he goes against the Aboriginals and sides with the Europeans. And a lot of gunshots fired, a lot of spears thrown. And the prose is that chiseled, I guess you could say Cormac McCarthy-like prose that we really love in novels that are filled with violence. But somehow the violence is made not beautiful but at least we can admire what goes on in this novel in a deep way.
NNAMDIIt's called "The Roving Party." Barbara, you're excited about another novel set in that corner of the world, this in Australia. What story is told in "The Untold?"
HOFFERT"The Untold" is actually a debut novel set in Australia in the 1920s. And it's actually about -- sort of based on the life of someone named Jessie Hickman who was sort of a woman wrangler. And the whole thing began -- speaking of Cormac McCarthy -- might sound like Cormac McCarthy, she goes from sort of being sort of a horse stealer to going to jail to -- actually she started out in the circus, then horse stealing, then in jail, then into a forced marriage and then on the run after a rather fiery departure from her husband.
HOFFERTAnd what I think is so extraordinary about this book is really the language. And it's just sort of lyrically tough and beautiful and distinctive. And at the same time you are seeing someone making her own fate. She takes her fate in her own hands, the time when many women didn't. And really gives a lot of people a run for their money. So "The Untold" I highly recommend.
NNAMDIRose, you're recommending "Saint Monkey" by Jacinda Townsend about 14-year-old Audrey Martin?
DAWSONIt's a book about friendship and it's set in Kentucky. And the reason why these little girls become friends is because they are picked on and bullied. And so that's the bond that pulls them together initially. But as little girls do, they all have dreams. And so the fact that Audrey has the talent to play the piano very well, she happens to be discovered and she goes off to New York and plays for the Apollo.
DAWSONUnfortunately, Caroline is not as fortunate. And as you expect, she becomes pulled into the life of a small town. And as you grow old what one expects to happen to someone and your dreams get washed away. It's a nice compelling story about friendship and how as one leaves the other, what happens to that friendship.
NNAMDIRose Dawson is the director of Libraries with the Alexandria, Va. Public Library System. Alan Cheuse is a contributor and reviewer for NPR's All Things Considered. And Barbara Hoffert is editor of Library Journal's Prepub Alert. You can join the conversation. You can tell us what your favorite reading is. Are you part of a book club? Tell us how you make your selections and why you like being part of a group of readers, 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIBarbara, back to that part of the world again that we were discussing earlier, you've got a title that also takes us to New Guinea where we find euphoria in Lily King's novel of that name?
HOFFERTYou'll feel the euphoric reading it and indeed there is a moment of euphoria. The book is actually inspired by the life of Margaret Mead but it doesn't completely replicate it. And Lily King said in an interview I did with her recently that she had read Amis' (sp?) biography and there was a section where it said she went up the river in Papua New Guinea with one husband and came down with two, that she had just met Gregory Bateson at that point.
HOFFERTBut it's not -- it doesn't replicate her life. It just sort of takes off on it. In fact, you know, the main character's name is Nell. She is indeed a notorious and very enthusiastic American anthropologist with an Australian husband named Fen. They run into Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist who is having a moment of despair about his work and his life. And what results is a kind of complicated triangle that's partly sexual and also partly intellectual.
HOFFERTThere is a great deal of discussion of the issue of can you be objective? Can we bring in our standards of science? And at one point the Nell character even says, well no, scientific truths are just replaced by other scientific truths. And then sort of challenging the idea of an overarching and at that point western idea that there was just one way to look at the world. So it's intellectually very satisfying but emotionally also, as you get tangled up with these three characters and their own entanglement, Nell has a very difficult relationship with her husband who is -- can be abusive.
HOFFERTThe whole thing, but in the end does end up to be a very euphoric moment. And I'll just add that this book's going to be featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review this Sunday. So I think it'll get a lot of exposure for a writer who's done well and should be known by more readers.
NNAMDI"Euphoria," by Lily King. We got an email from Bev, who writes, "Listening to 'Mrs. Lincoln's Rival' in the car and bedside novel is Dana Stabenow's Alaskan whodunit, 'Though Not Dead.' Enjoying both." We're going to be taking a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about summer reading -- a conversation that you can participate in. Is there a particular genre you gravitate to this time of year? Do you have questions about any books? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's time for summer reading. So we're talking with Alan Cheuse, contributor and reviewer for NPR's "All Things Considered," author of many works of fiction. The recent collection, "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories." Alan Cheuse is also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University. Rose Dawson is director of libraries with the Alexandria, Va., public library system. Barbara Hoffert is editor of Library Journal's "Prepub Alert," which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Christopher, Alan. Christopher writes, "Just finished 'Skin Game,' by Jim Butcher. Any suggestions to tide me over till the next Dresden File book?"
CHEUSEI don't know that book. I don't know "Skin Game."
NNAMDINor do I. How about you, Barbara Hoffert?
HOFFERTI mean I don't -- I'm sorry to say I don't read in that particular -- or I don't assign in that genre, though I report on it. I will go back to my office and do some research and send you an email later, so you can post it and let your listener and other listeners know what might be a good follow up.
CHEUSEIt's a thriller, is it?
NNAMDII'm not familiar with "Skin Game." How about you, Rose? Are you familiar with "Skin Game?"
DAWSONI'm not familiar with "Skin Game."
NNAMDIWe're all going to look it up now, Christopher. Next time we talk, we'll know all about it. Alan, we recently spoke of first-time author Zia Haider Rahman about his novel, "In the Light of What We Know." And one thing we talked about is whether it still makes sense in this increasingly global world of ours to identify books by geography. Given the sort of world tour that your list takes us on, I'm wondering, what do you think?
CHEUSEWell, I think it's more important than ever before. I mean if you just stay online, you think you can live anywhere. But if you go offline, you realize that it's difficult enough to live in one place, let alone three or four. I think it intensifies our sense of place and intensifies our memories of where we came from and where we live now and even where we might be going, to get novels like that. I mean it's an international novel about a rather rootless guy, who has done very well in business. And I think that kind of person dramatizes this modern sense of certainty, which is really quite uncertain in the final run of things.
CHEUSEAnd we think we know where we are because we're succeeding in that place. But you cut your ties with where you come from and you float along like a helium balloon and pretty soon you're in outer space.
NNAMDIRose, you are looking ahead a bit to a few non-fiction titles that you're excited about coming out soon. First, one that's close to home here in Washington about the crack-cocaine epidemic that swept the city a few days back. "Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C." by Ruben Castaneda.
DAWSONYes. I took my first job here as a librarian for the D.C. public library. And as a resident, with the Washington Post as your hometown paper, you can't help but follow everything that was being printed at the time. And so the fact that he's now written a book and you find out that he was a researcher who actually went a little too far in researching the stories, I'm just fascinated to get the behind-the-scenes.
NNAMDIYeah, we had Ruben Castaneda on the show earlier this year, who talked about his time at the Washington Post, covering the crack-cocaine epidemic. And a certain part of that coverage had to do with experiencing it himself, because he was a crack-cocaine addict at the time that he was writing about this. But I guess a lot of people didn't know. The other decidedly different title is a rare look inside the life of one of America's most beloved yet illusive writers. "Who is the Mockingbird Next Door?"
DAWSONThis is a book about the life of Harper Lee -- or with Harper Lee. And so Marja Mills, what she did is she went up and she moved into a place next door to Harper Lee and her sister, trying to meet her. Everyone knows that Harper Lee is very shy, doesn't give a lot of interviews. And she didn't really think anything would come of this. And she has managed to write a book that is able to share with us this friendship that has blossomed between the two of them. And so I really would like to hear more about her.
NNAMDIShe moved in next door, right?
NNAMDIAnd lived there for quite some time. On now to Maritsa in Rockville, Md. Maritsa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARITSAHi, Kojo. You've talked about a lot of novels, but there are other genres that I think summer is perfect for, like poetry. And Kwame Alexander from Northern Virginia has written several books for children and young adults. One of them for children that is amazing is "Acoustic Rooster." And it is poetry, so takes a lot less time and gives you more time for the beach and other activities. And another multi-cultural author, who just passed away, is Jose Govea from the Cape Cod area. He just published -- he had just published a book called "Saldacci" (word?) .
MARITSAIt's another great, short poetry book. And so I wanted to give a shot out to poetry from Alexander and Kwame's last book was just reviewed by Cornelius Eady in The New York Times. So that's my -- that's my...
NNAMDIMaritsa -- Maritsa, you should know that Kwame Alexander is scheduled to be on our kids and young adult summer reading show that will be early in July. So you might want to listen.
MARITSASee. I definitely will.
NNAMDIWe're looking at July 3rd for it.
MARITSAI'll look for it.
NNAMDIAny recommendations in the area of poetry, Barbara Hoffert?
HOFFERTYeah, I was just thinking as you were talking about that. And summer is a good time to sort of pick up on that. I'm remembering just more names of people that I like. Maureen McLane. I think her most recent one is "Blue Hour," but I'm not sure. Eleni Sikelianos is a terrific writer of energized poetry. Those are two favorites I would mention offhand for people to investigate, if they want to go into something a little different. Maureen writes in a very accessible, wonderful way that creates stories and yet is sophisticated writing. And Eleni's just a, you know, a scary, on the edge kind of writer that will really pull you in.
CHEUSEYes, talking about home and roots, the great New Jersey poet, Gerald Stern, has a new book of poems just about to come out. And any book of his is quite celebratory. He's now getting on, in his late 80s. And he's becoming even more wonderful than he was when he was in 40s.
NNAMDIBarbara, we talked in April about how technology is affecting our attention spans and whether people are having a harder time focusing on novels and other long-form works. What are you hearing from your students, patrons or colleagues about this?
HOFFERTFor me, you know, I find myself -- I think that I see the opposite in my assigning, that actually the short-story form, which I think would be great for our short-attention-span era, actually -- the short-story collections don't seem to work as well for my readers as I would expect. I think the reason we like those huge novels like the "Natchez Burning," and -- or Donna Tartt's, you know, very, very lengthy and detailed Pulitzer Prize Winner, that's this big, rich read. People actually get tired of multi-tasking and jumping around. And they really want to sink into those longer novels.
HOFFERTSo I think that actually, in a funny way, we're seeing people go for the long form now, because of the short form of the rest of our lives.
NNAMDIWhat are you hearing, Alan?
CHEUSEI agree entirely. I think it's a kind of a social illness that we have, our constant un-attention to the thing we should be paying attention to -- moving on and moving on and moving on. And novels especially hold our attention, as you say, over the long span. And it's great training for how to live a life.
NNAMDIHow about you, Rose. What have you been seeing or hearing?
DAWSONWell, I know what -- I have a 12-year-old. And I will say that the format does matter. Because as they're using the eReaders, I think that allows them to cheat somewhat. And so they're not -- I don't think the comprehension is going on that you get when you're actually holding that book and turning the pages.
NNAMDIWe actually got a tweet from Larry, when we asked about what is your favorite form of reading. Larry said, "paperback on the beach, my kindle on the couch." On the genre that they gravitate toward in the summer, Curtis tweeted, "old science fiction." Alan, if short stories are more your speed this time of year, you've got us covered with two collections. First tell us about the first collection from a medical student turned New Yorker writer.
CHEUSEYes. Rivka Galchen, who is becoming one of the finest younger stylists working in the short form today, I think. She has just published her first collection. It's called, "American Innovations," and she plays off against a number of classic writers, Borges and Gogol and Joyce, and writes her female-American versions of classics by those great writers. And she's just produced a splendid group of stories that I think anyone who's really interested in short fiction would admire.
CHEUSEAnd I discovered -- well, I discovered -- I picked up the book when it came in the mail and opened the pages, as many people will probably have done already -- by a writer who grew up in Siberia...
CHEUSESoviet Siberia, emigrated to Alaska, not very far away. And she went by plane, not by the old land bridge and has written a collection of stories called "Snow in May," that really is the best short stories by an absolutely un -- previously unpublished writer that I've stumbled on. Her name is Kseniya Melnik. And I think she now lives in Texas. She's warming -- her life's warming up. But it's a splendid book, "Snow in May." And it tells you so much more than you ever could have imagined about life in Siberia under the old Soviet regime, and is really filled with surprises.
NNAMDIHere's Rod in Washington D.C. Rod, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RODHi, Kojo. Thanks. I really love your show. I am just calling to say that I found a book recently that was recently published called "From Human to Human Being." It is an excellent book. And I just wanted to share that with everyone. I mean, it's actually...
RODIt is -- no, it's not, non-fiction.
NNAMDIIt's non-fiction. Okay.
RODIt is basically about spirituality, or just one's speaking a higher level of consciousness. And it's just really a personal journey for each reader. And it is phenomenal.
NNAMDIWho's the writer?
RODIt's called - the writer is Sahloc, S-A-H-L-O-C. And it's called, "From Human to Human Being." It is a personal journey. It is really great.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for that. We move on to Giselle in Bethesda, Md. Giselle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GISELLEHi, Kojo. So I love a series of book by Martin Walker, called "Bruno, Chief of Police." And they take place in France.
GISELLEAnd they involve sort of current political topics of interest in France. And I understand that Martin Walker, the author, splits his time between Washington and France.
GISELLEAnd unfortunately I've sort of like gone through all the books now. And I'm looking for some series like this.
NNAMDIWell, you may have heard Martin Walker on "The Diane Rehm Show," from time to time as a news analyst here. But I don't know if anyone can recommend anything like that. First to you, Barbara Hoffert.
HOFFERTNo, the -- I'm going to pass on this. I'm going to have to do a lot of research when I get back to the office.
NNAMDIHow about you...
NNAMDIHow about you, Rose Dawson?
DAWSONNothing comes to mind right now.
NNAMDIAnything like Inspector Bruno -- I think it's Inspector. Is it Inspector?
CHEUSEWell, I think you'll probably have to go to that great pile of Scandinavian police procedurals that have come in over the years.
NNAMDIHave you been getting any of those lately?
CHEUSEYeah. And I think I've found that I know more about Swedish politics and Swedish crime than I really ever imagined I would want to know. But somebody like Jo Nesbo, has a series. Harry Hole is a down-and-out inspector who solves a lot of crimes. I think that may fit the bill here.
NNAMDIJo Nesbo. I'm also hearing about Camilla Lackberg, L-A-C-K-B-E-R-G, who you might be interested in. So Giselle, follow up on those. You might find what you're looking for. Barbara, a lot of adults read young-adult novels, whether they'll admit to it or not. And you've got a title to recommend that has a teen protagonist, but it is written for an adult audience. What makes, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," a standout for you?
HOFFERTI think, actually, the protagonist is a young woman, a teenager, self-confessed underachiever with some behavioral issues. But she's got a keen eye, a ready wit and a passion for Emily Dickenson that is really heartening. But Emily Shepard is actually, now she's moved -- she's living under a pseudonym, going to various homeless shelters, even living kind of in an igloo she's built of ice and leaf stuff, trash bags, ever since a nuclear plant blew up in her part of Vermont, devastating the area. And she's living under a pseudonym because in fact her father was in charge of that plant.
HOFFERTHer mother was one of the publicists for the plan. So she feels as tainted as the landscape itself by her association with them. And she's afraid of even telling people her name. She takes a young boy under her wing who seems to not -- sort of not have any family to go to and seems to be injured. She takes care of him. And it's really charming to see at the one hand she's like, she's Goth and she's disaffected. And on the other hand, she totally sums up the Emily Dickinson epigraph, if I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.
HOFFERTAnd it's really -- it's not a book about the nuclear devastation. It's a book about coming of age in the worst possible way. And I have an 18-year-old daughter and I gave it to her to read, you know, sort of post-first-year-of college, just, you know, escapism. And she said, yes, she does really get the voice of a teenage girl. She seemed very pleased with that. So I think it's got potential for readers on both side of that divide.
NNAMDIBarbara Hoffert, handing off that book to an expert. Barbara Hoffert is editor of Library Journal's "Prepub Alert," which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Barbara, thank you for joining us.
HOFFERTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIRose Dawson is director of libraries with the Alexandria, Va., Public Library System. Rose, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAlan Cheuse is a contributor and reviewer for NPR's "All Things Considered," and author of many works of fiction, including the recent collection "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories." He's also professor of creative writing at George Mason University. Alan, good to see you.
CHEUSEGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show, is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Stephanie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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