Tope Folarin joins Kojo to talk about his debut novel, which follows a Nigerian American from boyhood to his young adult years as he navigates family, faith and identity. Plus, Folarin's path as a writer and D.C.'s literary scene.
Few things are better than a good book when you’re relaxing at the beach, waiting in an airport, or just kicking back during a staycation. Get recommendations for the best summer reads, and share some of your own.
- Barbara Hoffert Editor, Prepub Alert, Library Journal
- Ron Charles Fiction editor and weekly critic, Washington Post Book World
- Despina Kakoudaki Assistant Professor, Department of Literature at American University
Browse our critics’ favorite books of the season on our 2012 Summer Reading List. Let us know your summer reading picks in the comments.
Your Summer Reading Picks
From historical fiction and fantasy to memoirs and poetry, our book critics shared their top summer reading recommendations. We asked what you’re reading — or looking forward to reading — and here’s what you said.
Storified by The Kojo Nnamdi Show · Thu, Jun 14 2012 14:43:42
Kojo, Just finished reading a new 2012 book A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash………………I could not put it down until I finished. Takes place in Western North Carolina community. Each chapter is one person’s take on what happened in this small community of people that go to a specific church. Author’s first novel……….great read!
For a vacation to Europe or the Holy Land, there’s nothing better than Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad.” It’s laugh-out-loud funny (somewhat to my embarrassment) and is available for free for e-readers through Project Gutenberg. The technology may have changed, but human nature hasn’t changed since it was written. My young adult daughter and I were in Italy last month, and she was so amused by the parts I read aloud to her that she is now reading it on her Nook.
Hi Kojo! I read a lot…more in the summer since I’m a teacher….but only have time to read great books! 2 Colson Whitehead novels are awesome and fit your discussion… Sag Harbor—for reading about the beach. Zone One—for connecting to the hot show, The Walking Dead, a wry look at the zombie apocalypse from one ordinary survivor’s point of view. He’s a fantastic writer!!
Hi Kojo: I was just listening to your show and heard you discussing books about Iraq. There is a great book called Jerusalem Spring that talks about the middle east in a fictional setting. It has a good message and a surprising twist at the end. It’s an easy read with a lot of food for thought.
David Williams “Searching for God in the Sixties”
A lively approach to the mysticism of the 60s put into the larger context of all American religion. A heavy subject but a great read.
I love local (Baltimore) author Laura Lippman for a good page turning mystery.
Just recently retired I have just read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and all I can say is WOW. This book reads like a true piece of art. Understandably, some may be disgusted at its raw observations and attention to detail in human functions and intentions, but it was like looking at a sensuously created Impressionist painting. I encourage those who have not read it to take the adventure and get ready for a real mind and spiritual trip. Love you, Kojo.
The Totally Hip Book Review video series: Washington Post fiction critic Ron Charles picks the best novels of 2010.
The Totally Hip Book Review video series: Holiday edition
Charles starred in this satirical exploration of book review jargon.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. This region is home to some of the most well read cities in America so odds are good you're ready and rearing to go when summer reading season rolls around. But your time is precious even when there are more daylight hours so the question of which books to pick can be tricky. Should you try a genre you normally avoid, pick up the bestsellers everyone seems to be talking about or stick with your tried and true favorites?
MR. KOJO NNAMDINever fear, help is here with suggestions new and old. We've got something new for everyone. Joining us in studio is Despina Kakoudaki. She is a professor in the department of literature at American University. Her specialties include science fiction and explorations of race and gender and literature and film. Despina Kakoudaki, thank you for joining us.
MS. DESPINA KAKOUDAKIThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Ron Charles. He is a book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World. Ron Charles, glad to have you here.
MR. RON CHARLESOh, thank you for asking me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City is Barbara Hoffert, editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Barbara, thank you for joining us.
MS. BARBARA HOFFERTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe always like to hear your views too. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What are you reading now? Is there a book coming out soon that you can't wait to get your hands on, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can simply go to our website kojoshow.org or you can Tweet your summer reading suggestions with the #kojoreads. We'll be posting a number of those suggestions on our website kojoshow.org where you can also send your suggestions.
NNAMDIThis year for the first time in 35 years, Ron Charles, the Pulitzer Prize board decided not to award a fiction prize. What did you make of that decision?
CHARLESI thought it was really annoying.
NNAMDII did too.3
CHARLESYeah, there were many good books last year I would've chosen. Mary Doria Russell's "Doc" or Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder." And of course the committee came up with three books. They passed them onto the board and then the board just decided not to give a prize. I thought it was a little outrageous.
NNAMDIDid it surprise you?
CHARLESYeah, I was completely taken off guard because I thought it was a year of great books.
NNAMDIWell, Barbara Hoffert, you've worked on a lot of committee-picking prizes. Were you also surprised?
HOFFERTI was and I've worked on enough committees in picking prizes or best books that I know that one hashes things back and forth. But eventually one comes to some sort of conclusion. And I think it's really important to communicate to the wider world that fiction is still alive and kicking. We are always reading stories about how fiction is somehow, you know, in a downhill slide. And, as Ron just said, it's not. There are wonderful books out there so I think it just sent the wrong message.
NNAMDIThe message that it sent, the message certain people infer it is that, well, fiction is not what it used to be. Is that correct?
HOFFERTI don't agree at all. I think it's just that it's different, it's richer, it's more diverse. You know, 20, 30 years ago there might be one or two or three or five books that everybody would want to read a year. Now there's so many different diverse books, there's something really juicy and good for everyone. And I think that's a very exciting thing.
CHARLESAnd, you know, if the board didn't want to pick one of those three finalists they could pick some other book they like. They didn't have to just say no prize.
NNAMDIThis being, though, Ray Bradbury did not win a Pulitzer for any of his individual works. He was honored by the board in 2007 for his, quoting here "distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy." A lot of people credited Bradbury, who passed away last week, with bringing science fiction out of pulp magazines and into the mainstream. Do you agree?
KAKOUDAKIHe's part of a generation of authors that experienced that transition from the '30s and '40s and all of the pop magazines that were specializing in science fiction, mystery, thrillers, tales from the crypt, things like that and into more glossy magazines. What we are experiencing now is also the -- a similar transition from the novel, which is the mainstream form of science fiction since the '60s and into online publications, self publication. And so there are some interesting trends to see along the last 50, 60 years.
KAKOUDAKIWhat Bradbury's fantastic at is the short story. He makes wonderful short stories in the tradition of someone like Edgar Allen Poe or Hawthorne, things that have this kind of incredible experiential effect where you land somewhere, you meet these characters, you have like a slice of their life, and it might be on Mars and it might be in an automated house. And then that experience is so lasting and so intense in your mind and so that's why people remember his stories very -- with great love and also with great detail.
KAKOUDAKILike you could ask people who read the story 60 years ago and they still remember it.
NNAMDIDid you remember when you first read his work?
KAKOUDAKII started reading science fiction when I was a teenager in Greece, and some of it was in Greek and some of it was in English. I think that I was the beneficiary of a lot of tourists who left books behind, so there's lots of paperbacks to find in little used bookstores in Greece. I think I started from something like Asimov and Bradbury, those collections. I actually brought some to the studio today with their battered covers, some of the stories that started me on that genre, yes.
NNAMDIWell, Barbara, to move on here if we want to get kind of meta and read about a summer vacation while we are on a summer vacation, what would you recommend?
HOFFERTNothing better than Mark Haddon's "The Red House." And what I found so interesting about this book, here's the setup. There's a doctor, wealthy doctor, who's just married a trophy wife. And she has the quintessential dis-effective passive aggressive daughter. He's somewhat estranged from his sister after their mother's death. She has family problems of their own. They are invited by the rich doctor to go to this house to share to have a vacation they could never have had otherwise.
HOFFERTNow what could sound grimmer than sitting in a house with family members you don't get along with? It could be really awful, but what I admire so much about the book...
NNAMDIIt could be Thanksgiving, but go ahead.
HOFFERTWell, you know, but you -- and you think it's -- what I admire about it is he makes the ordinary extraordinary. I mean, yes, the -- you know, the brother and sister hash out old hurts and yes, the husband's sins are revealed. And yes, you know, teenage daughter of one and teenage son of another attempt to get it on. I mean, it's all sort of ordinary things you expect. No serial killers, no vast violence. It's a way of sort of making the ordinary extraordinary.
HOFFERTAnd you recognize slices of your own life and of yourself in these characters. And in the end, feels like a good book.
CHARLESI agree. It's a wonderful novel. I love the way that novel was written, too. The perspective changes almost -- well, sometimes every paragraph, right.
HOFFERTYes, yes. And it takes you a moment, but you catch up and you're embedded with every one of those characters.
CHARLESYeah, 30 pages in when you finally figure out who everyone is. It's a wonderful reading experience.
NNAMDILet's go to Jeannie in Silver Spring, Md. Jeannie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIWhat's your recommendation, Jeannie?
JEANNIEMy recommendation is Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco series. They're set in Rome about -- and they're mystery kind of things, but they're set all over the Roman Empire at that point. And they have really good historical settings, lots of nice detail and characters who think their way out of problems. So they're great reads and there's enough of them to keep you busy for the summer.
NNAMDIThank you for sharing that with us, Jeannie. You, too, can share your suggestions with us by calling 800-433-8850 or simply by Tweeting us at #kojoreads. Is there a book coming out soon that you can't wait to get your hands on? If there's a particular genre that you gravitate toward or avoid in the summer months, you could also tell us what it is. In case you're just joining us, this is our Summer Reading Show.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Ron Charles. He's a book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World. Despina Kakoudaki is a professor in the department of literature at American University. And Barbara Hoffert is the editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal, which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Most booklovers are passionate about getting people to read more, but, Ron Charles, you may be the first I've met who has a bacon -- who has won a bacon rig (sp?) to further the cause. Can you please explain?
CHARLESYeah, about a year-and-a-half ago I started the series of satirical videos about the panic in the book industry. I developed this character called the totally hip book reviewer who was a book critic trying desperately to reach a new audience. And so we did a series, about 13 of these episodes, where I would review books in kind of a dead heat of panic and anxiety. And it was very fun to do. Very exhausting to do too, though.
NNAMDIWell, talking about it may -- talking of books anyway may not do them justice. So let's take a listen to one of Ron Charles' totally hip book reviews.
CHARLESOh, hello. I'm Ron Charles. You may know me as the fiction critic for a major American newspaper. Here at the Totally Hip Video Book Review we're committed to throwing off the shackles of the past and giving you book criticism that's fast, fun and totally hip. And yet some of you dear ones still cling to outmoded standards of the past. You think we should have copy editors. You think we should be checking facts, that we should be fretting about getting things right. It's really quite touching. Listen to this letter. A letter. Don't you love it? Like something from the Jurassic period.
NNAMDII found them rather funny and was -- I assumed that you hired a professional production team to put this together.
CHARLESNo, my wife and I just ran around the house on the weekends and threw these up.
NNAMDIAnd did it all. It all looked very good to me. But those video reviews may now be on hiatus, but bookstores and reviews have recently been taking clues -- cues I should say, from hot TV shows offering literary suggestions to "Downtown Abbey" fans and lovers of "Mad Men." Do you think that's a smart move?
CHARLESI do, yeah. We've followed up, too. A lot of these papers have. If you like "Downtown Abby," you'll like these books. If you -- or trying to lead people away from other popular things like "Twilight" or "50 Shades of Gray" to other books we think are more worthy. Yeah, so I think that's a great idea.
NNAMDIThis being, science fiction is a realm with close ties to both TV and to film. Why are novels or stories that provide, well, fewer details often find themselves more right for adaptation?
KAKOUDAKIWell, I think that that characterizes a lot, the success of someone like Philip Kay Dick on film and the success of Bradbury on film. Their stories are vignettes and they are very minimalist, very empty. And so it allows a team of visualizers, right, a team of magic -- film magic people to create these wonderful worlds and to fill them with all these details that the stories don't necessarily take on. But what the stories have, they have characters, they have emotional arcs, they have that kind of fundamental situation that might be really intense, really dense. And this is what these writers are great at.
KAKOUDAKIBut I was actually watching the film adaptation that Truffaut did of "Fahrenheit 451" last night just for fun. And the scenes in which they burned the books would give you nightmares.
NNAMDII remember that scene so very well.
KAKOUDAKIIt just -- you look at all the covers burning and curling up and you definitely feel like, I think I have this exact copy in my library somewhere. I hope it's safe. Like, you get this craving for the materiality of books, of having them and owning them and reading them. And how wealthy we are that we have all these books just in our house when these people in that universe, you know, don't have a single book. There are not even entry credits into the movie. They read aloud the credits to show you the feeling that there is no print.
CHARLESIn 50 years, how will people react when they see books burning? They'll wonder, what is that?
CHARLESWhat's happening there?
NNAMDIAnd, you know, I haven't seen that movie in 40 years, and that's still the scene that I remember when I think of that movie.
KAKOUDAKIIt's shocking. They throw them around. They break the spines. You go --
NNAMDIBarbara, there's no escaping the hot books of the moment. Why are people so taken with the work of E. L. James?
HOFFERTWell, I'm not necessarily.
KAKOUDAKISo there you go.
HOFFERTBut, you know, I think -- part of it is I think people get -- people get excited about hearing that other people are reading things which just gets people to read things. And half of the people who pick up a book like that end up not actually caring so much but nevertheless wanting to know what's going on. You know, we're all very connected right now and I think that's part of it. Certainly I don't think it's doing a lot that a good juicy pop fiction or erotica is doing already but it seems to have hit a chord and hit -- and created a critical mass. And there it goes.
NNAMDIIs it the feeling that people want to be a part of something that's like happening?
CHARLESYes, I do think that. I went to Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago and E. L. James was there and there were about 350 women and we just had a great time. There was a lot of laughing. Everyone was -- no one was taking these books seriously but they were all enjoying being there. They were enjoying one another. They were all quite open about it too. I had heard that women wanted to read these books on their Kindles so that no one could tell what they were reading. But nobody there showed any shame at all about it. It was all in great fun.
NNAMDIAnd of course E. L. James is a former British TV producer and a married mom of two. Her name is Erika Leonard. She writes under the name E. L. James and has by all accounts got smacked by her success.
CHARLESOh, yeah, she was a delight. She was laughing too. She was not a pompous person. I think it's ridiculous that Time chose her as one of the 100 most influential people of the year. She's perhaps one of the most influenced people of the year, but, you know, she is most popular off the...
NNAMDIWell, to put it in context, the publisher Vintage said it took three years to sell as many copies of "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series as it took to sell her "50 Shades," 50 million copies in three months.
CHARLESYeah, I think it's the fastest selling paperback, too.
KAKOUDAKIWell, but one of the things that we are experiencing with things like "Twilight," with things like "50 Shades of Gray," even with things like Harry Potter is the interaction between lots of different modes of experiencing novels and the written word and book communities. A lot of these books have incredible power online. They have created communities around them and then we see that power in lots of ways, people that have their own websites about these particular phenomena. And that's what creates a sense of community that occasionally we see in the real world when we see them in a meeting in Barnes and Nobel.
KAKOUDAKIBut some -- but if you go online, you actually see the massive power of those communities in their own forms and in online forms. It's a different interaction between media.
CHARLESOh, right, definitely.
NNAMDIHere's Sarah in Deal, Md. Sarah, your turn.
SARAH(unintelligible) how are you?
SARAHSo I read a book a few years ago and I wish I could remember the name of the author. Your producer actually told me and I forgot, that's how old (unintelligible). It's called "The Reliable Wife" and...
NNAMDIBy Robert Goolrick.
CHARLESYeah, I love that.
SARAHI just picked it up at the airport on the way to visit my mother in New Mexico. And I read it in like three days. It was so good.
NNAMDIDidn't want to put it down. Those are some of the best surprises when you're just walking through the airport and you pick it up. You barely have time to read the synopsis and then when you get on the plane say, whoa, this is good.
CHARLESI'd never read Robert Goolrick before that. I thought it was a spectacular novel. It really takes off and it has some great turns in it. Very exciting.
NNAMDIGot to pick that up, "Reliable Wife," Robert Goolrick.
HOFFERTAnd he has a second...
HOFFERTHe has a second novel coming out that takes the same theme, but flips the roles of the characters, that I think will generate a lot of excitement.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our summer reading conversation. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Any classics you recently read for the first time that you'd like to encourage others to pick up? You can go to -- send us a Tweet at #kojoreads or send us email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking summer reading with Ron Charles, book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post Book World, he of bacon on head. Also with us is Barbara Hoffert. She is the editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal, which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. And in studio with us is Despina Kakoudaki, a professor in the department of literature at American University.
NNAMDIDespina, this is a town that's full of policy wonks and some might be surprised to learn that many sci-fi classics have a strong connection to politics. Tell us about "The Dispossessed" by Ursula LeGuin.
KAKOUDAKIThat is a wonderful book that is taking on, I think -- and this is partly the reason I added it on my list -- the issue of a thought experiment. A lot of Ray Bradbury science fiction, a lot of serious science fiction, takes that question of how could you imagine a world that would be radically different? And both in terms of utopia and dystopia novels and in terms of just really experiments in thought process, what would be a different planet, what could be different species, what could be a different way to feel emotion.
KAKOUDAKIUrsula LeGuin is fabulous in imagining with great detail how a completely different world could work. So that world is actually two different planets that coexist. One planet is basically the anarchists and the anti-property political groups that became their own society. And they have wonderful different language patterns. So for example, they don't say -- I think that -- I'm not sure if I'm remembering the quote right, but the little girl doesn't say, you can borrow my handkerchief. She says, you can share the handkerchief I'm currently using.
KAKOUDAKIIt doesn't belong -- the handkerchief doesn't belong to anyone, but it is shared among people. And the main character is someone who's doing advanced science. And he travels from one planet to another. The second planet is much more capitalist, much more traditional, much more patriarchal. And so the conflict between both planets and the connection of culture, language, gender identity, emotion, sexual relationships, how all of those things will be complicated by something fundamental, such as the relationship to property or the relationship to money.
KAKOUDAKIAnd there's a fundamental political ground. It isn't facile politics, this politician versus that politician. It's just what is the art of living together and what are the things that make the art visible, which -- you know, from language to sexuality.
NNAMDIYou also recommended two books by Samuel Delaney, probably the most prominent African American sci-fi writer, "Trouble on Triton" and "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand." One in 1976, the other in 1984. You can find this list at our website, kojoshow.org. But Delaney is what, around 70 years old now?
KAKOUDAKIYes, he just turned 70 and actually his 70th birthday was the occasion for a special day conference at the University of Maryland College Park. Lots of wonderful people from the community here in D.C. came to talk. A lot of academics gave papers, a lot of fans gave papers. And his writing is very complex. He came of age in terms of science fiction in the 1960s where he wrote a lot of kind of short, you know, still experimental, but within the science fiction mode books they had spaceships and space opera things. But he has amazing inventions.
KAKOUDAKIAnd then his writing had developed throughout the '80s and '90s into other forms. He wrote fantasy that had to do with futile sword and sorcery societies. He wrote books that were almost pornographic. He's very experimental in his style and still a very kind of young voice in the field. But both the books I recommend "Trouble in Triton" and "Stars in My Pocket" are wonderful exercises in alienation. You will be surprised at any point in his books, not by a gadget, but by, for example, a sudden discourse on calculus. And characters that can switch gender completely, but then still find problems with relationships.
NNAMDIRon Charles, your specialty is fiction, but you recommend two nonfiction picks, both from Washington Post Alumni. Tell us about the works of -- or by Katherine Boo and the late Anthony Shadid.
CHARLESOh, it's a very powerful book called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo. It’s an astonishing story about the lives of residents in Mumbai, India, one of the largest slums in the world. And she lived there for three years and she really humanizes and individualizes these people. She gets right into their lives. So it's not the sort of, you know, broad sympathetic pity that you sometimes get when you look at these cities where everyone blurs together. She goes deep into their lives and we learn about them as individuals.
CHARLESShe'd won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post I guess about ten years ago. The other book has such a sad story behind it but it's a beautiful memoir by Anthony Shadid, who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Just before -- you know he died earlier this year of an asthma attack. But he went back and tried to rebuild -- or did rebuild his house -- his family's house in Lebanon. So it's a family saga, it's sort of a humorous rehab tale that anyone could relate to and it's a struggle to reconnect with history. There's some great characters in there. It's a beautiful, beautiful book.
NNAMDIAnd if you'd like to listen to Katherine Boo talk about her book, we had her on this broadcast on February 29 of this year, so you can go into our archives and you can find that interview there. But, Ron, first we had Stieg Larsson then Jo Nesbo. The latest Swedish thriller import is Camilla Lackberg. Though you say she may have more in common with Agatha Christy than with her fellow countrymen.
CHARLESYeah, what is it about the Scandinavians, you know? It's turning into Cabot Cove over there. I mean, it's hard to believe that anybody's still alive. There are just so many great thriller writers coming out of Norway and Sweden. And she's only in her mid 30's and she's already writing these incredible pieces. She's outselling Stieg Larsson. Her new book's called "The Stone Cutter." It takes place in this little fishing village. It opens with a, typically for her, creepy scene where a fisherman draws up a lobster trap and there's a small child drowned in there. You know, these are horrible events, but...
NNAMDICan't wait to read it.
CHARLESNo, it's not dreary. It really is creepy and thrilling.
NNAMDIBarbara Hoffert, vampires, werewolves are familiar characters, but the tales you recommend are a bit different than what we're used to. What's different about Glenn Duncan's "Talulla Rising?"
HOFFERTI love this book. And it's not for "Twilight" fans, I have to say, or for kiddies in general. Duncan is a really terrific British writer. I love his work and his first novel that he wrote in a series, the first one called "The Last Werewolf" was indeed about the last werewolf, Jake, who is ready to face his demise when he discovers actually there is another werewolf. And they get together and we see "Talulla Rising" in the second novel. What I admire about this is he doesn't glamorize the wereworld experience at all or the paranormal experience. You know, sort of the hero and the glamorous vampires that you see.
HOFFERTHe really makes it quite clear how awful it is when they go through their transformation and they're feasting. It's viscerally ugly. And you also see the conflicts they feel as characters about the fact that they do this. And yet you see the wolf rising in them and they know they can't resist it. So he comes -- the characters come off as sympathetic, conflicted-ly human, for lack of a better word. And it's showing us how we deal with our primal darkness and how love can be flawed but still exist.
HOFFERTIn the next novel, though, Jake has been killed off and the last werewolf Talulla has -- discovers that she's pregnant. And then the question becomes werewolf babies and what is that going to lead to? What's really terrific here is the language is just amazing. He's just a wonderful writer and, as I said, it's not for your average "Twilight" kiddy fan. It's a really bracing and challenging read.
NNAMDII can see that as the title of the next book, "Werewolf Babies?" Here is Ian in Springfield, Va. Ian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IANHi, Kojo. First off, I just want to thank you for bringing up this topic. As an avid reader, I worry that books are getting left behind in the day of digital electronics. But I wanted to point out that comics are also a good summer read. They're usually fairly short and with, you know, "Dark Knight Rises" and "The Avengers" doing so well at the Box Office, I think they're an optionally overlooked source of reading material for people.
NNAMDIYes. We are you not reviewing comics, Ron Charles?
CHARLESWe do. We reviewed "Are You My Mother" recently, a wonderful memoir.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your suggestion, Ian. Mike in Fairfax writes spy novels, my favorite summer guilty pleasure. "To my mind, when you're looking for something entertaining and escapist to read on the beach or by a lake, there's no substitute. They are usually pretty cheesy and a bit hackneyed and clichéd, but I enjoy the fast paced storylines and the cheap price of my Kindle. Daniel Silva and Dave Baldacci are favorite authors."
HOFFERTBarbara Hoffert, war and other life and death conflicts provide rich background for powerful stories, whether fact or fiction. It's my understanding that you're seeing some strong novels about the Iraq war. We're starting to see those novels anyway.
HOFFERTYeah, you know, many -- a generation worth of incredible writing about Vietnam and now we are shifting over to Iraq. In fact, one of the biggest books at BEA was just -- was here last week in New York was called "The Yellowbirds" by Kevin Powers who is an Iraq veteran and has a MFA in writing. So we're starting to see things emerge.
HOFFERTA book that I wanted to talk about by Ben Fountain, "Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk" (sic) is a story of a group of soldiers who have been through a horrific battle. They have had a TV, you know, journalist reporter embedded with them. And so the whole world can see how they prevailed. And they are taken on a victory tour in America to just -- the Bush Administration wants to celebrate them, wants to push them, wants to say that things are going perhaps better than they are in Iraq.
HOFFERTBilly is a 19-year-old Texan. He's only -- he's young enough that he's only just beginning to understand what the world is about and starting to ask the questions and starting to read books about what am I doing here. What do I want to do? And even as he's going through this he and his fellow soldiers are being fond on -- fond over by the people that they meet. They're at a -- you know, as halftime suggests their last stop is a Dallas Cowboys football game at Thanksgiving and all those gorgeous cheerleaders and the crowds. And Billy is standing back and starting to ask questions.
HOFFERTHe doesn't necessarily come to the answer you might expect but you can -- you have a sense of how a very young person has been twisted around by this war. It's a beautifully written novel. Occasionally it breaks into -- you can see -- it's not an experimental novel but his words scatter across the page reflecting exactly how -- looking like a poem. Sort of exactly how his mind is scattered. And you follow him right through it. It's both -- it's sort of a bitterly funny and very true-to-life novel.
NNAMDIAnd of course, the BEA is the Book Expo America. Ron, any recommendations, books about war?
CHARLESI was going to recommend that one. We raved about it. I thought the comparisons to "Catch 22" were overblown, you know, but then when I read it, I thought, no, this is this generation's "Catch 22." It'll be the best war novel of the year, I'm sure.
NNAMDIDespina, war or its aftermath is a subject of a lot of science fiction. Anything you want to weigh in on in that regard?
KAKOUDAKII think since people have Bradbury in mind, the thing that's interesting to remember that a lot of the science fiction writers writing in the '40s and '50s really are weighed heavily by the memory of World War II and by the threat -- the looming threat of nuclear war. And in some of Bradbury's stories, it's almost as if it's like some kind of fundamental that's on the side that, oh, yes, and by the way, it was destroyed by nuclear war. It's something that's assumed and it's always there.
KAKOUDAKIAnd so it can explain a lot of the pessimistic and kind of existential tone of science fiction in the '60s. Someone like Philip K. Dick is still, you know, worrying about the atomic bomb and he's definitely worrying about the Cold War. In one of the books that I think takes that into a more contemporary direction would be Octavia Butler's sequence, "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents." She doesn't actually tell us how this world came to be as devastated as it is, but it is really devastated. Government structures have disappeared. Social structures are very much under pressure. And it follows a young protagonist who's trying to find some kind of safe world or create a safe community for herself.
KAKOUDAKIA lot of the details of that book, like gated communities or, you know, the kind of breakdown of the media and the family structures are very close to our world. And it's almost as if she removes a tiny little bit from the contemporary world to create this absolute mayhem. But then the books still have some kind of interesting fundamental focus on the individual, on commitment, on leadership, on community. And the fact that she can find these unbelievable human values in that devastated world is kind of fascinating and a real feat, I think.
NNAMDIOctavia Butler died tragically. I think it was in 2006. I had the opportunity to interview her twice. The first time she...
KAKOUDAKII'm so jealous.
NNAMDI...the first time she was shy and withdrawn, almost distrustful of strangers. And the second time she opened up a little bit more and I felt you got to know her a little better. But she was not a very easy person to get to know, Ron Charles.
CHARLESI talked to her just a few weeks before she died and I think she fell, right?
NNAMDIYeah, she did fall at her home.
CHARLESSuch a loss because she had just started what was going to be a trilogy about vampires. And it had a lot to do with race. It was about a young black female vampire. That book was published. I can't remember the title.
CHARLES"Fledgling," right. That's a wonderful book. And if you want something much more serious than the "Twilight" books, go try that book.
NNAMDIHere is Craig in Chesapeake Beach, Md. Craig, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CRAIGYes. Thank you so much for taking my call.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Craig. Recommend at will.
CRAIGThank you. I actually just finished a book that was recommended to me by a friend. It's called "The Terror" by Dan Simmons. And the title I know sounds a little histrionic, but it's actually based on the failed and then lost John Franklin arctic expedition in I believe they said in 1845, trying to find the Northwest Passage around the north of Canada. And no one knew what had happened for years and years, and recently they found some artifacts and started to put it together, and Dan Simmons went back and did a fictional recreation of what may have happened.
CRAIGHe weaves in some supernatural and mythical elements to it, but as a summer book it was great fun to read out on the deck, and feel like I needed a blanket despite the heat wave we've been having down here.
NNAMDI"The Terror" by Dan Simmons. Thank you, Craig. Got to take a short break. If you have recommendations of your own, you can send us a tweet at #kojoreads or email to email@example.com. We'll put it on the list on our website kojoshow.org where you can also go to join the conversations. We have phone lines open though. Call us, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking summer reading with Barbara Hoffert, editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up-to-date on what's new in the publishing industry. Ron Charles is a book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post's Book World, and Despina Kakoudaki is a professor in the department of literature at American University. Her specialties includes science fiction and explorations of race and gender in literature and film.
NNAMDIFamiliar authors pepper each of your recommended reading lists. Ron, you say Toni Morrison's latest may be one of her less intimidating books and I know what you mean when you say that, because I tried "Beloved." (laugh)
CHARLESBeloved is like one of the great books of the 20th century, but it is tough.
CHARLESYeah. The narrative structure is tough, the elements of surrealism are tough, the sexuality is tough. Here's a book for people that have been a little put off or a little intimidated and want to get into Toni Morrison, try this book "Home." It's short, it has a much easier structure. It's about a Vietnam vet who's come back in the '50s. He's trying to reintegrate into society, but he has mental health issues. His sister is in trouble and he's trying to reach her. As I say, it's -- you can get a lot of the great Toni Morrison themes here and see her doing some of the same things, but it's a much more accessible novel, and much easier than her last novel, "Mercy" which was pretty baffling to almost all of us.
NNAMDIAmazing at 81 years old, and she still seems to be putting out extremely good works.
NNAMDISome say some of her best work. Barbara, historical fiction continues to be popular, and there's some new looks at the lives of European royals hitting the shelves. Talk a little bit about Francine Du Plexxis Gray's "The Queen's Lover."
HOFFERTIt is actually a fictionalized biography of Count Axel von Fersen. Now, not everyone may have heard of him, but he was a significant Swedish diplomat and also a lover of Marie Antoinette who many of us have heard of indeed. And it doesn't just talk about their relationship, but reconstructs Von Fersen's life, before, during, after the revolution, his devotion to the queen's memory which is very touching, yet at the same time you see him -- he was quite the robust womanizer, so you see him in many relationships, and yet he makes it very clear that he would only bed classy women.
HOFFERTSo there are some luscious scenes that maybe those "Shades of Grey" people would like to read. But the history is just delivered in such a beautiful, polished way. You truly step through the looking glass that is Versailles and enter into that other world, and come away with a little bit better understanding of it. One of the things that I think is most interesting is how effectively she portrays the count as a man of real principle. We might not necessarily agree with those principles.
HOFFERTCertainly he was very devoted to the monarchy and the class structure at that time, but his sense of honor carries through and his sense of devote to the queen, and his close, good, fond relationship with his sister come through as really extraordinary.
CHARLESWe'll have a rave about that book in tomorrow's paper.
NNAMDIAh, there we go. On the same page so to speak, or almost. Ron, you're suggesting the latest by Hilary Mantel "Bring Up the Bodies."
CHARLESOh, yeah. So many people like "Wolf Hall," of course which won the Booker Prize. This is about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. This is the next book, much anticipated, and it's even better. She is just amazing. And I don't usually get to listen to books, but I did listen to this, and there's just a wonderful audio book of this by Simon Vance. Of course, it's I don't know how many hundreds of CDs, but I really do recommend it. It's like a radio play.
NNAMDIDespina, as much as we like looking back at the way things were, we also like to imagine what might have been if, you recommend an alternate history take from Philip K. Dick that does just that. Tell us about "The Man in the High Castle."
KAKOUDAKII was about to mention something about the historical impulse because it sounds like there is a certain type of time travel, space travel, in these historical novels that are not science fiction, but they take on this other -- the weight of history in other ways. This is one of Philip K. Dick's -- one of my favorite Philip K. Dick novels. He basically presents the possibility that World War II and the history of the 20th century just didn't go the way that we know it went.
KAKOUDAKIWhat if the United States had never gotten out of the depression, what if it had never gone through the industrialization and massive mobilization of World War II. What if World War II had not been won in the way that it was won, and what if right not basically the United States is a divided country kind of modeled on Germany after World War II. Part of it is owned by -- or not owned by, but controlled by a victorious Imperial Japan, and the other part is under the influence of the different access powers.
KAKOUDAKIThere are two books in my list of recommendations that have that possibility, that alternative history. "The Man in the High Castle," which imagines that World War II didn't turn out the way we thought, and the "China Mountain Zhang," a wonderful novel by Maureen McHugh which imagines that in a near future world the whole world is basically under the cultural influence of China, and so China is the dominant cultural power. It has the best technologies, it has the -- it leads in terms of the values and style and all of that, and the United States is kind of a backwater that tries to look up to China as the main world power.
KAKOUDAKII think that these kinds of books give us a sense of first of all, a real consciousness of how the historical conditions we are experiencing are themselves part of long, long processes, and also a real consciousness of how little things could be completely altered, completely different. For example, the people of Asian descent in the United States in "China Mountain Zhang" are very appreciated. They're at a premium. It's your ticket to perhaps win a scholarship to go study in China, and that is just really the holy grail.
KAKOUDAKISometimes people do surgery on their faces so they can accentuate their Asian features. It's just really kind of amazing, and you think about how it alters the current environment and what we think of the developed world, or the west or the United States, what are the dominant cultural assumptions we have, and all of them are taken up in a very different way there. I love these thought experiments as you can imagine from all the stuff I've been saying. I love this ideas that things could be very different.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of what if, Ron -- what if, Ron is excited about an upcoming novel that imagines...
NNAMDI...what would have happen in Lincoln survived...
NNAMDI...that fateful night at Ford's Theater.
CHARLESThe Yale law professor, Stephen Carter coming out called "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln," and as you say, it imagines that Lincoln is shot but he survives, he recovers on Easter, and -- but then over the next two years he meets a terrible political problem where the right wing of his own party, the radical Republicans want to impeach him, and so this exciting novel is all about that trial and the investigation, and there's murder and there's romance. It's really a lot of fun, but that doesn't come out...
NNAMDIIt's by Stephen Carter, and what's it called?
CHARLES"The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln." It comes out early July. Oh, and that book by Hilary Mantel, I don't think I said the title. That's "Bring Up the Bodies."
NNAMDIOnto Patty in Leesburg, Va. Patty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATTYHi. Love your show. I just wanted to mention a wonderful website. It's www.paperbackstop.com, and you go online, you register, and it's a trading situation. You post the books that you have for, you know, or you want to have somebody else read...
PATTY...you don't want to just throw them out, and you get points, and then people come online asking for the books that you have. The only cost to you is whatever it costs to mail a book to whoever wants it, and that's usually...
NNAMDIWhat do -- what does getting points...
PATTY...two or three dollars.
NNAMDIWhat does getting points do for you in this system?
PATTYThe more points you have, the more books you can request. So let's say I have at the present time ten credits, then people who want something that I have can register and ask me to send them a book, and I do.
NNAMDIOh, I see. Thank you very much.
PATTYIt's a wonderful, wonderful site.
NNAMDII just know these airline points systems confuse the heck out of me. So Patty, thank you very much, and thank you for sharing that with us. We move onto Rich in Kensington, Md. Rich, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHHey, Kojo. I wanted to talk about the wonderful new book called "The Right-Hand Shore," which is by Christopher Tilghman. A good local book set on Kent Island. So many people here are gonna be driving to the eastern shore. It takes place like starting in the Civil War through 1920 about the eastern shore, and it's just -- it's filled with history, it's filled with suspense. A great local book for the beach.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for that recommendation. We got from Patty in Olney who wrote, "For a vacation to Europe or the Holy Land, there's nothing better that Mark Twain's 'The Innocence Abroad.' It's laugh-out-loud funny, somewhat to my embarrassment, and is available for free for e-readers through Project Gutenberg. This technology may have changed, but human nature hasn't changed since it was written. My young adult daughter and I were in Italy last month, and she was so amused by the parts I read aloud to her that she's now reading it on her Nook." Any other recommendations you would like to make, Barbara Hoffert, for our summer vacation reads?
NNAMDITwo books, John Lancaster's "Capital," which is set in 2008. The economy is crashing, and along Peeps Road in London residents are receiving strange postcards saying we want what you have. Very ominous. So whether it's the Pakistani shopkeeper, or the older woman who's dying of cancer, or the banker who needs that $1 million bonus, there's more in the air that's ominous than they can possibly handle. It's a wonderful cross-section of society, not just British, but society.
HOFFERTAnd another novel that's not coming out until August, but -- so save it up, listeners, by Vaddey Ratner, "In the Shadow of the Banyan." It is a really bracingly heartfelt and beautiful novel about surviving Cambodia's killing fields written by someone who did.
NNAMDIAnd she's a local writer.
NNAMDIShe's a local writer.
HOFFERTShe's a local writer, yes, in Maryland. And I hope she's listening. But like the heroine, the author was part of the royal family, and she talks about what she went through, and it's heart rending, but she also emphasizes -- she invests her most beautiful language in talking about the beauty of language, the beauty of literature, the beauty of Cambodia, her will to survive, her relationships with her family. So it's ultimately a devastating novel, but about hope. So I really enjoyed it. That's in August.
NNAMDIRon, good fiction does many things, and sometimes it can even change the way we view the world. How has Richard Ford's "Canada" done that for you?
CHARLESThat's probably the best book I've read this year. It's a magnificent book. It opens with this line, first I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed, then about the murders which happened later. It's about these two twins, 15 years old. Their parents are good people. They love their kids, but they're sort of ne'er do wells. They can't seem to function, and they can't get work, and they get this ridiculous scheme to rob a bank which they know nothing about, and of course they're immediately arrested and sent to jail.
CHARLESAnd then the kids are just left there. The daughter kind of wanders away, and then the son is whisked to Canada to escape Social Services, and it just made me think, you know, we read every day about people being arrested and sent to jail, but there are always these kids in the background and what, you know, what happens to them? What happens to these kids who are left? I mean, I know Social Services comes, and relatives come, but their lives are so changed in the most chaotic way, and this book, which is beautifully written, made me think about that for the first time in a really deep way.
NNAMDIDid you review that in the paper?
NNAMDII was wondering, I know this plot, why do I know this plot. I read Ron Charles's review. That's why I know this plot. Gotta get that. Hannah in Burtonsville, Md. Hannah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HANNAHHi. As a college student, you know, I don't really have that much free time to read, so I'm in love with my Kindle, and I recently just finished two books on my Kindle, the first one is called "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer, and, you know, it's about this journalist who wants to improve his memory. And so what set out as just a simple inquiry into the art of memory becomes this whole journey for him, wandering through and trying to improve the art of memory and how it impacts education and our daily lives, and, you know, we depend so much on day planners and technology that it really -- it brings up the issue of what we think memory is used for.
HANNAHSo that was really interesting. And then the second one I have is called "The Fault in our Stars" by John Green. And, you know, that's a little more focus towards youth and it's about two teenagers and they both have cancer. One of them who was thought to be cured, his cancer comes back, and the other one who is impaired by oxygen tank and has to carry it around with her all the time, and it's just about their love story and their travels to Europe on his Make a Wish Foundation, and this story is such an eloquent telling of, you know, a teenage love story that they have such short time together, but it's so beautiful, and it really, you know, it really touched me as a college student. They're around my age, and I just really loved his writing for it.
NNAMDIWell, funny enough, one of our interns, also a college student, recommended this book also. Hannah, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of young people, we're planning a young adults' and kids' edition of Summer Reading for an upcoming broadcast. More than likely it will be Thursday, June 28 at 1:00, so look for that coming up. We're running out of time very quickly, but Ron, it's my understanding you really liked "Arcadia" by Lauren Groff about a utopian community gone wrong?
CHARLESYeah. Beautiful book set in the '70s about a five-year-old boy who has this idyllic upbringing in a commune that's run by a rock star who's a druggie, goes to jail eventually, and the commune falls apart as communes always do, as utopian communities always collapse. It seems like it'll be very cynical, but it's not because this little boy as he grows up, he always want to get back to that sense of utopia, that sense of community, that sense of belonging that he can never find again. It's really, really beautiful.
NNAMDI"Arcadia," by Lauren Groff. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ron Charles, thank you for joining us.
CHARLESOh, thank you so much.
NNAMDIRon is a book critic and fiction editor for the Washington Post's Book World. Barbara Hoffert, thank you for joining us.
HOFFERTI was glad to, thanks so much.
NNAMDIBarbara Hoffert is the editor of Prepub Alert for the Library Journal. Despina Kakoudaki, thank you for joining us.
KAKOUDAKIThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIDespina Kakoudaki is a professor in the department of literature at American University. Thank you all for listening. Have fun summer reading. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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