Consumer DNA databases, like FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch, have opened up new avenues for law enforcement investigators to identify people suspected of committing serious crimes. But the new technique raises privacy concerns.
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
The summer days can be long, hot, and downright uncomfortable in this swamptown.
Luckily, we’ve got your guide to the very best books of the season, whether you’re lounging poolside or hunkering down with the A/C on high. It’s our annual summer reading show! So, sit back, relax, and take notes, bookworms.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Hannah Oliver Depp Owner, Loyalty Bookstores
- Tayla Burney Author, "Get Lit D.C." newsletter
- Ron Charles Book World Critic, The Washington Post; @RonCharles
- Aminatta Forna Author, "Happiness"
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. The summer days here can be long hot and downright uncomfortable. Luckily we've got your guide to the very best books of the season, whether you're lounging poolside or hunkering down with the air conditioning on high. It's our annual summer book show. So sit back relax and take notes for your own summer reading list. Joining us to discuss is Ron Charles. He's the editor of The Washington Post Book World and host of "The Totally Hip Book Review." Thanks for being here, Ron.
RON CHARLESThank you.
SIMONSHannah Oliver Depp runs Loyalty Bookstore in Petworth. She's opening another Loyalty location in Silver Spring in the fall. Hi, Hannah.
HANNAH OLIVER DEPPHello.
SIMONSTayla Burney is an avid reader and writer. She's behind the "Get Lit D.C." newsletter of local literary events and she's a former "Kojo Show" producer. Nice to see you again, Tayla.
TAYLA BURNEYGood to see you too.
SIMONSAnd Aminatta Forna is a award-winning author and professor at Georgetown University. Her most recent novel is called "Happiness." Aminatta, welcome to the program.
AMINATTA FORNAThank you.
SIMONSNow, Tayla, I want to start with you. What do you look for in your own summer reading? Is it a time that you tackle a 400 page tome or would you prefer a lighter summer read like a page turning thriller for example?
BURNEYYeah. So I gravitate towards mysteries and crime fiction generally speaking. So that is definitely a well that I find myself going to a lot during the summer months, because I know it's going to hold my attention. I know there are authors like Louise Penny or Tana French, who I go back to time and again because they write these incredibly series. So I find them to be reliable. So I often look for something like that. And I also spent my summers reading like ghost stories by grandparent's pool, so, you know, that sort is like an evocative thing for me.
BURNEYSo I'm looking for something like that. I'm definitely not trying to finally tackle Moby Dick.
BURNEYNot the time.
SIMONSSeems like a lot.
BURNEYIt's a lot. But, you know, I definitely find myself looking -- more and more lately I've been reading romance as well, because it's fun and it's satisfying and there's a lot of really smart romance writers out there. So those are the kinds of things I'm looking for. I also love a good sprawling family drama, ideally set against a New England backdrop preferably Maine, not to be too specific.
BURNEYIt's not a genre, but it should be.
SIMONSRight. Exactly. Now, Ron, you wrote recently about why summer reading should never be a chore, right, in your piece. Now can you tell us more about that and what went wrong for you in the summer of 1988 or do I dare ask?
CHARLESSeveral things, but I was trying to finish up a qualification for a Ph.D. and I decided the best way to do that would be to sit down with the Columbia history of American literature and read it from beginning to end.
CHARLESYeah, I got about 300 pages in and realized, this is just torture. So I just threw it aside and it changed my whole attitude about summer reading. And I realized that so many people, whether they're in graduate school or not do this to their summers. They decide that summer is the time to read the important book, the Moby Dick, the Anna Karenina, and they do it to their kids, which is even worse. You know, you should read what you want. You should fill your house with books and let the kids be drawn to what interests them.
SIMONSNow all of us -- and this is for all of you. All of us have some holes in our list of things that we've read of classics that we've read. You know, like literary greats that we were just never assigned back in English in high school for example. Does the summer feel like the right time to go back and read some of those that you might have missed?
DEPPI think, again, you do need to be drawn to them. And I think that's true of any book no matter what. There's always that like kinetic thing. I see it in loyalty books all the time. Somebody walks in and they're just magnetically pulled to the book table that holds their special book. But I think sometimes people feel their brains have enough space maybe in the summer whether it's a vacation or not to absorb something. I hate -- as I much as I hate the term guilty pleasure reading I hate obligatory reading even more. But, you know, we all have it. I don't think there's anything wrong with assigned reading.
DEPPBut I do think that in the summer time people can finally find the space to maybe or maybe not the "Moby Dick," but maybe they're going to do some "Middlemarch." I sell a shocking amount of "Middlemarch" in the summer. I don't know what it is. I was like, "Are you hoping to find the complete opposite weather in this book?"
SIMONSAminatta, what about you? Is that -- is the summer a time to go back and catch up on what you missed out on?
FORNAI have two ways of approaching the summer. There's the pile of books by my desk, which I have wanted to read and haven't got around to reading, but have heard great things about during the course of the year. And there's also sometimes a set a reading project. So most recently, for example, I decided to read a selection of the works that my students had all been set at high school. I graduated high school in the 1980s. They graduated high school a year or two ago. It's a very different reading list. So I asked them all to write down one book that they'd enjoyed at high school. And I went through that and then I chose the ones that, you know, that appealed to me.
SIMONSWell, interesting. Now, Hannah Oliver Depp, you run Loyalty Bookstore in Petworth as we mentioned before. What for you is the ideal summer book? I saw you raising the roof as Tayla spoke earlier. What are you recommending to people right now at your store?
DEPPI always try to find out what their secret drudgers are. That's my job. But, you know, kind of my table is piled high with right now a lot of wonderful queer romances that have recently come out that are written beautifully, speculative fiction and mystery books that cross genres and get people out of their comfort zones, but are highly entertaining. And then there's a lot of really wonderful dynamic family intergenerational stories that are coming out. And I like -- sort like Tayla. I don't care necessarily what form it takes, but I like a good mess I can dig into whether that's romantic or mysterious or, you know, secrets of your great-grandmother's past.
SIMONSWell, another non-specific. I love you guys. Now, for anyone, are you part of a local book club?
BURNEYI have been in the past. I'm not currently, but I will say like D.C. Public Library was the one that I did for a long time. It just so happened I had finished reading "The Gold Finch" a couple summers back and it was perfectly timed that the branch right near me, I think it was the southeast branch actually was getting ready to host a book club. And I actually was part of that for a while. I've dipped in and out of them over the years.
SIMONSWhat is it about that? I know you're not part of one now. But like what -- I mean I know for me like back in the day it was just like, "Oh, Oprah's book club." Like if Oprah says to read it. I want to read it and that was pretty much it for me.
BURNEYI think for me it has to be a club -- for it to work sort of long term, it has to be a club where you find your like-minded readers, right? Where you're sort of like, "Okay, these picks make sense to me." I've been in them in the past where it turns into more of a wine club, which is also great too, like, there's nothing wrong with that. But it can frustrating depending on sort of how the setup works, what I think is why it's great to find them at your local library, at your local indy bookstore especially if you're a more serious reader looking to get into one.
SIMONSNow, Aminatta, you won't get to read much for pleasure this summer. A little birdie told me that you're serving as a judge for one of the prestigious Canadian literary prizes. Tell us about that.
FORNAWell, it doesn't preclude reading for pleasure, let me make that clear.
FORNAI'm reading some wonderful books. But I am judging the Giller Prize, Canada's Giller Prize, which is their premier award for literary fiction -- think of the Pulitzer, Canadian Pulitzer. So, we, the judges have about 100 books to read and I'm about 50 in.
FORNASo the books I'll be talking about in the show today will be mostly those books that, you know, I would have been reading were I not working my way through the last 50.
SIMONSRight. I was going to ask you what kinds of books do you actually most love to dive into in the summer time when you don't have 50 others books that you need to be reading?
FORNAI don't read that differently in the summer from any other time in fact. I am very drawn to literary fiction. I've always felt that reading was the greater part -- that thinking was the greater part of reading. And also I'm a slow reader, which is making the Giller quite a challenge, but I'm quite a slow reader. So I tend to take a book that I want to ruminate over and think about in between.
SIMONSI feel so much better about myself right now, because I am a super slow reader. I've actually transitioned to audiobooks for that very reason, because I'm like, "Why am I rereading the same page over and over? What's wrong with me?" Ron, you and your fellow Washington Post Book World editors, you recently published a list of the top 20 beach reads. Can you tell us about a few of the books that made the cut and why? Like what were you guys looking for when you set out to make this list?
CHARLESIt was mixture of books we'd loved and books we thought other people would love. Sometimes those, you know, crossed. Other times they didn't. For instance, tomorrow probably the biggest book of the summer is going to come out. Elizabeth Gilbert "City of Girls". It's a big 500 page novel set in the 40s about a young woman who goes to her aunt's crazy theater in New York City and all her adventures over the next several decades. Should be wildly popular after "Eat, Pray, Love" sold something like 12 million copies.
SIMONSI want to go to the phone lines. I see we've got Marcy from Springfield, Virginia on the line. Hi, Marcy, you're on the air.
SIMONSHi, what's your question?
MARCYHello. Well, it was a comment. I wanted to -- I'm a reader, but my mom is a prolific reader and she's a member of two book clubs. One is a traditional book club. But the other, they read a book on a theme every week, so it's one book of their choice on a theme that they all agree on.
CHARLESWait. Every week?
SIMONSEvery week, yes.
MARCYShe is a very prolific reader. And she's retired, you know.
SIMONSThey're quite impressed here in the studio. Thank you so much for calling us, Marcy. Now, Ron, you've called "Strangers and Cousins" by Leah Hager Cohen the perfect summer novel. Why did you?
CHARLESIt really is. I just loved this book. It's a romantic comedy about a family getting ready for the eldest child's wedding. So you think, you know, you know everything that's going to happen. The craziness, the zany relatives, all that, but in addition to being really funny it also becomes very serious as ultra-orthodox Jews move into the neighborhood and this family's liberal ideals are suddenly challenged in a way they did not expect at all. I thought it was really thoughtful and really funny and really entertaining, which is just all I want in a summer book.
SIMONSYeah, and you also wrote in your review of "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" that Ocean Vuong is "surely a literary descendent of Walt Whitman." Tell us about Vuong's work.
CHARLESI know. That's a little bit of a -- I'm worried that was a stretch, but I convinced myself it wasn't because --
SIMONSYeah, that was a quote. I should have made that clear. "Surely a literally descendent," what does it mean?
CHARLESBecause of what he does with the form, it's so radical, because he's mixing history and cultural criticism and autobiography together in really radical ways because he's a gay writer. I just thought, "Yes." I mean this is somebody, who is as radical in our time as Whitman was in his. And this book, which is highly autobiographical about his life with a very abusive difficult mother and grandmother, who came from Vietnam is absolutely stunning.
SIMONSAllen is on the line from Tacoma Park. Hi, Allen.
ALLENYes. I've been in a men's book group actually. It was started over 10 years ago, the Chevy Chase List Service -- not just Chevy Chase men, but it's people. But it was fascinating because there was some retired Foreign Service people. So we read books by, I think Mahfouz from Egypt and people that suggested books from their area of history and of knowledge of that. But I'm not currently in that one, because I was wanting to read so many other books and I just couldn't keep up with it. Then I was on the Hexagon Show and I couldn't come to the meetings. But I wanted to recommend Jasper Forde books. Are people familiar with Jasper Forde?
BURNEYOh, yes. Good time.
ALLENF-O-R-D-E. Yeah. And someone mentioned speculative fiction, but it was so hard to describe for my book group and a really hard time describing "The Air Affair" about this woman that's sort of juris fiction. Books are read on these by actors. When you open a book, an actor in this world of Jasper Forde, they act things. And there were some shenanigans going on in "Jane Eyre." So Thursday next this agent has to in and deal with that. And there's a whole series, "The Well of Lost Stories," "Lost in a Good Book."
ALLENHis new book is called "Early Riser," which is totally different about an alternative future where people hibernate for winter to save energy. And there's some early riser, who is not supposed to be awake and the shenanigans that accompany him. But he's very very literate, very fun. If you know some other literature like I never read "Jane Eyre" as a young man growing up.
SIMONSWell, thank you for that. Thank you, Allen. And so Allen brings up speculative fiction books. And I was just about to ask Hannah, Tayla, and Aminatta what are the books that are on top of your summer reading list and I want to start with fictions. Aminatta?
FORNATop of my summer reading list is a local author called Tope Folarin and his new book is "A Particular Kind of Black Man." It's a coming of age story. It's a story of being the son of immigrants, but it has a twist to it, which is that his father is chasing the American dream. Can't quite catch it and takes his family all over rural Utah. So it's not as is typical with these kinds of stories, as more common with these kinds of stories set in a city. It's actually set in this completely barren landscape and this Nigerian family trying to adapt to their new circumstances.
SIMONSWow. Tayla, fiction books on your summer reading list.
BURNEYSo the one I just finished that I really loved is "Red, White, and Royal Blue" by Casey McQuiston. It's another fist pump by way by Hannah.
SIMONSHigh-fiving across the table.
BURNEYIt's really fun. It's a great romance. I'm an unabashed anglophile. So it's about the first son of the United States, the son of the first female president of the United States, goes over to a royal wedding, mayhem ensues and he and the second heir to the throne end up in an actual fight. They knock over the cake, international incident that needs to be repaired. The two of them are sort of forced into a foe-friendship that blossoms into a romance. And it's really great because it's on one level incredibly frothy and fun and just an unabashed pure joy to read.
BURNEYBut to your earlier point, Hannah, it's also a queer romance and it's this story of Alex the American coming to terms with his bisexuality and, you know, Henry the Brit sort of coming to terms with what going public with this romance might mean for his family and his place in it. So it's really just a great read and it's terribly fun, but it also has this sort of level that makes you think about our society.
DEPPAnd the main protagonist is a Mexican American biracial child from Austin, Texas as well. So there's just a lot of layers in this. The book actually made me like laugh out loud and cry, which I stayed up way to late finishing it.
SIMONSWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Ron Charles, the editor of The Washington Post Book World and host of "The Totally Hip Book Review," Hannah Oliver Depp, who runs Loyalty Bookstore in Petworth, Tayla Burney, an avid reader and writer and also the woman behind the "Get Lit D.C." newsletter, and Aminatta Forna an award-winning author and professor at Georgetown University. And we're talking about summer reading.
SIMONSNow, Aminatta we were chatting during the break and we were talking -- we're kind of catching up on our conversation earlier on men's reading clubs, which are so rare. And you said something -- you said, you know when did these clubs become a single sex activity. What are your thoughts on that?
FORNAWell, I am invited to speak to book groups every now and again. And I love to go, because I love to talk to people, who have read the work. So often we give talks to people trying to make them buy our books. It's great to get the feedback. And I was invited to an all-male book group. They were successful professional men. They were investment bankers. They were lawyers. They were doctors. And they had started their own book group, which was very happily for me held in a private room of a smart restaurant with very good wine.
FORNABut I asked them, why is a men only group? And they said, well, they had all asked their wives if they could join their book groups. And their wives had said no, we don't want you. So they wanted to know -- they wanted for me -- what they from me was to know why the wives didn't want them in their book groups. So I said, well, you know -- and this actually goes to a point that Tayla made earlier about sometimes these book groups are all wine clubs, but they're also gossip clubs too.
FORNAAnd I said, I suspect very strongly that it's because your wives want to talk about you as much as they want to talk about the book or else things they didn't you to hear anyway.
SIMONSVery good point, I want to read an email. Donna emails us. She says, if there is someone, who has not read Michelle Obama's book "Becoming," they should put it on their list. It is well-written and gives you an inside view in understanding not only of the first lady, but of a daughter, professional woman, mother, and spouse. It is not only a good read, but a real plus for every young woman and young man. The other one that she suggests is "Educated" by Tara Westover, a memoir. She's like, I could not put this down. You too, Hannah?
DEPPOh, it was so great. And it's been flying off, I think every bookshelf in the county, but for both of those I'd also recommend the audiobooks.
SIMONSAbsolutely. Debbie from Silver Spring is on the line. And she sounds like she wants to weigh in on our men's book club discussion. Hi, Debbie.
DEBBIEHi, there. Hi. There's so many thing to talk about. I'm so excited about this show right now. The reason I call is because of the comment about men in book groups. I am currently in a book group with my husband. We've been in the book group for 28 years. And he started it 30 years ago when we were just dating. In fact, he started it pre-me, it's life before me. He started this book group.
SIMONSTwenty-eight years. Wow.
DEBBIEIt's been wonderful. We meet monthly. It's the same core group of people, some people left for graduate school, came back, rejoined the group. We watched each other get married, have kids, kids have all graduated from college. And we still get together. It's wonderful and the way we organized it is -- you know, we had many years to really solidify the book group. We meet at 7:30. We chat until 8:00 or 8:15 about life and then we start talking about the book.
DEBBIESo if you can't get there at 7:30 you're going to miss the chatting about life part, because we start talking about the book.
DEBBIEAnd we also have a very elaborate selection process in how to select the books. But, in fact, the two books that the previous email mentioned, Michelle Obama's book and the book "Educated," we read at book group and loved them both.
CHARLESCan you tell us about your selection process, because that seems to be the problem for most clubs.
DEBBIEOkay. So this is what we do. The person who is selecting -- there's a list of people. It's in alphabetical order. So when it's your turn to select you bring about five to six books that you want to present. We have -- recently people have brought summaries. But we prefer if you bring the book, which means you got to go to the library or buy the books. You bring them. We pass them around. We all just take a look at them. Maybe someone will select a page and read a paragraph in the middle. And then everyone can select. We have two rounds of voting. The first round is you select two books. Then the top two books get selected to go into the second round of voting. And the top book wins.
CHARLESCould you take over our government?
SIMONSI know it's Silver Spring, but this is a D.C. book club if I ever heard one.
SIMONSIt's wonderful. Thank you, Debbie.
DEBBIEWell, you know, it started in D.C. We've all moved to Silver Spring and Rockville and that area.
SIMONSIt's shifted with the group. Thank you, Debbie for your call. Appreciate that.
DEBBIEThank you so much. Take care.
SIMONSI want to read some tweets. Sarah tweets, "I'm just finishing up a very light read that has been on my shelf for years, P.D. James's "Death Comes to Pemberly." It's a fluffy murder mystery set in England, which is my favorite kind of summer read." And J.Q. tweets, I'm finishing up "Station 11" and it's so good. Next up, "Crazy Rich Asians," "Give me Your Hand," "Evicted," "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval." So that's on her list coming up. Now we talked earlier about fiction books. I wanted to jump into -- I'm curious. What's on your list of non-fiction recommendations this summer? Hannah.
DEPPYeah. I'm partway through two books right now, which are somewhat related, "Spying on the South" by the recently very late and great Tony Horwitz, which is in some ways a follow-up to his kind of modern classic confederates in the attic. Really beautifully written as it always is and his ability to combine his empathetic view, but also like searing search for truth and history is really wonderful.
SIMONSAnd we should say rest in peace to Tony Horwitz as well. He passed away suddenly last week.
DEPPIt's a big loss to letters in this country. And also "They were Her Property" by Stephanie Jones-Rogers, which is about actually white women slave owners, which is just a thing we just decided not to talk about as a country. And so it's a really sort of strong beautifully documented look into a lot of the background into like kind of what divides us often as feminists and a past we don't want to acknowledge.
DEPPAnd then finally going completely opposite "Range" by David Epstein, which I think every bookseller in the country adores, because it explains why we like doing such a strange job. But it really is about humans and our love of doing all sorts of different things and our desire to become good at all sorts of different things. And that it might not actually be a bad thing to -- as opposed to narrowing down and becoming obsessed with being the super best at this one thing. That we can actually become very great at all parts of our lives by nurturing this desire to go down these rabbit holes.
SIMONSNon-fiction recommendation from you, Aminatta.
FORNAOh, so many, because I'm reading -- when I'm not reading nomination novels.
SIMONSWhen you're not reading 50 books.
FORNAI really turn to non-fiction, when I need a relief from fiction. Carolyn Forche "What You Have Heard is True," award winning poet. It's a wonderful memoir about really becoming a poet, finding a way of seeing and saying. And it starts off with a mysterious man, who turns up at her doorstep, takes her to South America, shows her what's going on in that part of the world and just opens her eyes. Full disclosure, she's a professor at Georgetown University, but that doesn't make the book any less wonderful.
FORNAAlso David Chariandy "My Dear I've Been Meaning to Tell You," which is a letter to his daughter about growing up mixed race in Canada. It's in the vain of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it is equally tender and beautiful. It's very slim. You'll read it in the morning and you'll be thinking about it for a year. And there are others, but let me quickly go through -- Alexander Chee "How to Write an Autobiographical Novel" is hilarious and touching in turns, particularly when this Korean American writer moved to New York and starts working as a private waiter in some of the wealthiest houses in the city.
FORNAAnd, I'll finish off, I think, to let the others get in, but with Barry Lopez, "Horizon." I haven't read it yet, but I'm a big fan of Barry Lopez, "Of Men and Wolves," and also of "Arctic Dreams." And he and Annie Dillard, to me -- I might reread "Teaching a Stone to Talk." I love nature books. I love the natural world. These two are both the most wonderful writers, but also they are very, very different from each other. She's a miniaturist, you know. She really looks up close at the natural world, and Lopez does the big landscapes, you know, huge -- and "Horizon," of course, you know epitomizes that idea.
SASHA ANNE SIMONSMm-hmm. Ron, how about you, nonfiction?
CHARLESI don't read a lot of nonfiction for the Post, but I did read Eve Ensler's memoir novel, called "The Apology." She, of course, wrote "The Vagina Monologues," in the '80s, one of the canonical plays of the 20th century. And in this book, she writes the letter to her sexually abusive father that she always wished he had written, and never did. And she waited and waited, and then he died, and she kept waiting. And, finally, she said, well, I'm just going to write the apology he never gave me, and so this is the letter that she imagines him writing from beyond the grave. And it's searing, and eventually, I think, healing.
BURNEYSo, I have a lot that fits into the category. Hannah was just talking about the things we haven't talked enough about as a culture. And one of them that I'm just enjoying so much is "The League of Wives." It's the story of the women who took on the U.S. government when their husbands were either prisoners of war, or missing in action in Vietnam.
BURNEYThese are women who were very cruelly left to their own devices. You know, the government sort of told them not to talk about what was happening, not to share with -- by God, don't talk to a reporter. The worst thing they could've done. And they were sort of in this uncomfortable and impossible position of wanting to protect their husbands and their safety, to the extent that they could, and also given very little support by the government. Some of them couldn't get their paychecks cashed. You know, it was just sort of -- as you look back at this very recent history of these women sort of, you know, who men in power didn't want to give a voice to, it's a really powerful sort of collection of their experiences.
BURNEYThe other one that I really love is Esme Wang's "The Collected Schizophrenias." It's been out for a couple months now. It's a series of essays that she wrote about her sort of journey to a diagnosis of, ultimately, a schizoaffective disorder. I think we are talking more about mental health as a society, but we're comfortable with certain diagnoses, and very uncomfortable with others. And she really takes that on in a way that -- I think what will surprise most readers is how relatable it is. It's a very, very wonderful collection of essays from her.
BURNEYAnd then, finally, "The Five." It's Hallie Rubenhold's story of the five victims of Jack the Ripper, who've never really been given much ink. Countless ink has been spilled over the man, who did the murdering, but she really explores the lives of these women about whom very little is known. And what stood out to me most about this, ultimately, was that it's sort of an account of what it was to be homeless and on the fringes of society at that era. And shockingly little has changed, which is sort of the thing that has stuck with me most about that. And finally, I, too -- I haven't read it yet, but Tony Horwitz's "Spying on the South" is on my list. I read, I think, everything he's written, and it is such a terrible loss.
SIMONSAbsolutely. Now, you can find the full list of summer reading recommendations from Tayla Burney, Aminatta Forna, Hannah Oliver Depp and Ron Charles at our website, Kojoshow.org. Hannah, why do you think summer books are marketed to be light and relaxing, the beach reads that we often hear about?
DEPPI think sometimes the people doing the marketing for the books may not be talking to readers, sometimes. It is really interesting, because it's not usually what people come into. Now, people do say, I'm traveling, and I physically cannot carry, usually, every book, which, of course, has something to do with it, but I do think, you know, obviously it's summer. We associate it with summer break. That's how school, you know, has tended to work in this country for some time.
DEPPAnd I think it just gets in you, and you just think, like, I just need a break, but that can mean very different things to very different people. And that's where the kind of individuation of reading and books and taste comes in, as opposed to that. But, you know, we say whatever that break means to you, you do tend to approach it as a break.
SIMONSDid you have something to add, Aminatta?
FORNANo, I think she's quite right. It is about non-readers. It's about the person, who doesn't normally pick up books, and marketers are trying to get them to pick up one and make it easy on them. And I guess it's also about, you know, dropping it in the pool, in suntan oil, and, you know, several margaritas in, can you still hold onto the plot?
SIMONSWhen you know what's happening. Ron, are there any books that counter that whole narrative?
CHARLESBooks that are, what, that aren't fun?
SIMONSYeah, tell us about the un-fun books.
CHARLESOh, nothing but cliques there.
SIMONSYeah, the calls are coming in.
CHARLESI think what you can hear is the importance of finding somebody you trust to recommend books. I mean, everyone I talk to, the only thing they really ask me is what should I read, because they just feel overwhelmed by the number of titles, as do I. I mean, we're getting 150 books a day at the office. And, of course, ordinary people go into a bookstore, and they immediately, you know, are driven to the best seller list or, you know, some other book they've heard of. But talk to your librarian, talk to your independent bookstore seller. These are people trained. Their lives depend on listening to you, and then finding the next book you will like and don't ignore that tremendous resource.
SIMONSNow, Bruce sent us a Facebook message. He said, I second Ron's endorsement earlier of "Strangers and Cousins." Another book I strongly recommend is "Ask Again, Yes" by Mary Beth Keane. All I can say is, wow, powerful and real. Leshaun Tweets: "The Broken Earth Trilogy" is a great series, and is a rare treat for sci-fi, with the protagonist and many of the characters being of color. So, that's pretty cool. Rebecca also Tweets: I just finished "Normal People," which I really liked, and am now diving into "Conversations with Friends."
SIMONSAnd I remember you making a reference earlier, Aminatta, about, you know, reading early in the morning. And this Tweet from Grace reminds me of that. She says: making time for reading during the summer? I took a page out of my mom's book and have been waking up early in the morning to get some good reading before the day begins. I don't know if I can do that. My day is just so jam-packed with elementary school and middle school kids, that I just don't --
DEPPAlthough you will be able to read maybe even outside, before the heat hits, if you wake up early enough.
SIMONSOh, really. The possibilities. Wow. Tayla and Aminatta, specifically, what is it about the summer, anyway? Like, why all this hype and nostalgia around what we read during this particular season? Like, why do we care?
FORNAYeah, why do we care? Because people don't get much holiday, anyway, so I don't know, you know, how many books you're really going to get through if you are an American. But I think it goes back to childhood. I think it's nostalgia. I think we remember those great big, long summers that somehow had to be filled with something other than mischief. And my parents would take me to the library every Saturday. We would choose three or four books for the week. And, you know, I grew up in countries where there wasn't TV. So, that's how we filled our week, when we weren't at the beach.
SIMONSYeah, absolutely. And that's what we do at home, as well. My daughters, I got them library cards pretty early on. They were four and five, and we just started signing out books and just getting the practice. In every city that we've lived in, we've made sure we checked out that local library, and it's just kind of become habit, along with what they have to do in school.
BURNEYAbsolutely. I think it is part nostalgia and part habit. And I think even if you don't have the time, to your point, you have that memory of having those long, languid days when you were a kid, when time seemed to be like this infinite resource. That even if you don't have as much vacation time, if you're carving out some time first thing in the morning or on your commute or, you know, at the end of the day, whenever it is, you're trying to sort of recapture that feeling.
DEPPI want to say, first of all, I learned to sign my name to get my library card. So, please, everyone, take your kids to your local library. They often have really great programs, as well. And it's definitely, I think, so much to do with summer reading, but if anyone is looking for kids summer reading rec's, there's one coming out in August. It's utterly wonderful, which is "My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich," by Ibi Zoboi. It's a great, sort of like elementary school, middle school read. It's really wonderful science and adventure and dreaming, which is what the best parts of summer are about.
DEPPAnd then if they're a little bit older, you're trying to get your teen to read, "With the Fire On High" by Elizabeth Acevedo, who I believe was on this program. And, of course, if you are an adult, who isn't scared of teen fiction, as you should not be, you should also pick it up.
SIMONSYeah, and we'll actually do some more children's books rec's a little bit later. You're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha Anne Simons, WAMU's Race and Identity reporter, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about great books for the summertime in a moment. Stay with us.
SIMONSI'm Sasha Anne Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Ron Charles, the editor of Washington Post's Book World and host of The Totally Hip Book Review, Hannah Oliver Depp, who runs the Loyalty Bookstore in Petworth, Tayla Burney, an avid reader and writer and the woman behind the "Get Lit D.C." newsletter and Aminatta Forna. She's an award-winning author and professor at Georgetown University. We're talking about summer reading recommendations. Now, I want to take a call from Jonathan, who's been sitting on the line so patiently, Jonathan in Washington, D.C. Hi, Jonathan.
JONATHANHello. How are you?
SIMONSGood, thank you. What's your comment or question for us today?
JONATHANWell, just being part of the -- I am part of a "Game of Thrones" book club that was started by a librarian out of Cleveland Park.
SIMONSWow, and so you -- so what do you -- what do you guys -- go ahead.
JONATHANSo, we meet, like, every other week to watch an episode, and then we're also reading the books. And we'll meet monthly at a pub to discuss various theories and --
SIMONSOkay. Thank you.
JONATHAN-- things around the show.
SIMONSThanks, Jonathan. I also have an email here from Lauren. Lauren emails: I work at a bar in Petworth, and we were recently delighted to host a Virginia Woolf book club. It was more than half men, which was also great to see. Have more book clubs in bars, please. (laugh) That's what she writes.
SIMONSAnd, let's see here, Rebecca emails: I've been in and out of several book clubs through the years, but have had one consistent group coming up on 18 years. One of the reasons I love it is it's made up of about 15 women who are very different, different ages, circumstances, etcetera. We simply take turns choosing books. And even though I don't 100 percent love every single book, it brings so many different books to my attention, and the diversity of the group brings such interesting discussions. Book groups of really similar people have never really been able to hold my attention. That's interesting.
SIMONSSo, the diversity is sort of adding to that, you know, discussion. We remember our caller from earlier, that talked about the time set aside at the beginning to just talk about life, right. That's pretty cool. Now, Aminatta, you are the author of one memoir and four novels. We need to talk about "Happiness," which I mentioned earlier, and you published last year. So, for listeners who haven't read it yet, give us a brief summary of "Happiness."
FORNAWell, "Happiness," the idea of "Happiness" has really come out of growing up in several countries and moving to the States four years ago, and finding the idea of happiness really varying across those different nations, from a small West African country to London to the United States. "Happiness" is an exploration of what happiness is, but the narrative tells a story of a Ghanaian psychiatrist who comes to Britain -- to London, specifically -- and Jean, who is an American wildlife biologist. And these two are brought together, quite literally, on Waterloo Bridge, by an urban fox.
FORNAAnd the book takes you through Jean -- and Attila is the name of the Ghanaian psychiatrist -- coming together, first of all, by accident, then deliberately, in the search for a lost boy. And it examines the layers of the city, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the powerful and the disenfranchised, the native and the immigrant, but also the animal world, which is a large part of the book, the foxes and the parakeets and all of the various animals and birds that exist in all cities alongside the human beings.
SIMONSInteresting. Could you read an excerpt from your novel? This is Aminatta Forna, reading from "Happiness."
FORNASo, the excerpt actually takes place in the United States, which is, of course, Jean's homeland. The Last Wolf, Green Hampton, Massachusetts, April 1834. Spring snow still, porcelain bowls in the hollows of the earth. Blue hour, the outlines of pine trees and houses stood against a deepening sky. The wolfer gazed upon the lights of the town. For days, he had traveled back to this place which he'd once known, but hadn't been near for half a life.
FORNAFrom what he could see from the rise of the hill, he reckoned Green Hampton hadn't grown much in the years he'd been gone. If anything, the houses were fewer. Men had been upping sticks and leaving, he'd heard tell. Men had left their homes and bonds, abandoned their farms, farms worked three generations. Fathers and grandfathers had cleared the rocky soil of New England, had felled trees and then hitched mules to tree stumps and heaved each stump loose, had sunk wells and built walls around their farms, laid each stone by hand, had protected their livestock from predators.
FORNANow, the sons of these men were handing their land back to nature and heading west to the plains, where a man could stand in one spot and turn around and see nothing but open space in every direction, and underfoot, when he cooked a boot heel into the ground, soil, black and rich.
SIMONSThat's was Aminatta Forna reading from her novel "Happiness," which came out last year. Now, Aminatta, you're also currently working on a collection of essays. What can you tell us about that?
FORNAI can tell you I haven't got a title yet. (laugh)
SIMONSWell, check. (laugh)
FORNABut it's a collection of essays. Some are published, some are not. What brings them together, really, is my voice and my eye. What I like to do is I like to look and see something. And I guess, you know, one possible title is "Hidden in Plain Sight." Take something that we take for granted, like, for example, you know, urban animals or sleep or walking or flying. I've just written an essay about flying. I love to fly. I flew as a kid all over the world, because my parents lived overseas.
FORNAI mean, we all hate the process of getting onto an airplane, but actually, once I'm in that seat, to look out of the window and look down and see what, you now, future generations had no chance of seeing -- will have no chance of seeing, and past generations didn't see, either. But to see that, literally, bird's-eye-view of the world is extraordinary. So, you know, the whole collection is brought together by looking at really, more or less, the everyday, but really seeing how we came to that.
SIMONSNow, Tayla and Hannah, you are both very intimately connected to the literary scene here in the Washington region. Are there any local authors or stories that you're especially excited about this summer? Hannah, you want to start?
DEPPI'm actually very excited about "Travelers," by Helon Habila, which is a beautiful book. And it really is one of those times when someone starts writing something, you now, ten years prior, and then sort of unfortunately becomes very politically relevant. But it is a book about those who are -- it's not interwoven short stories, but there's many, many different characters who get the focus during the book. And he really truly gives you full pictures of these characters and their situations.
DEPPAnd you find yourself realizing how refugees who have found themselves in Europe, how their stories relate very, very much so to our current moment, even though it actually does not take place in this current moment. It's a really lovely book, like I said. The characters really stand out, and I think it -- well, not a lot of people are going to probably hear about it. I hope that a lot of people read it in their book clubs and pass it on, because I think it will really have a huge effect on those who read it.
FORNACan I just second Helon Habila's "Travelers?" I've read it, too, and it is a beautiful, beautiful book.
BURNEYI have two that I haven't read yet, but that I'm really excited about. One is Angie Kim's "Miracle Creek." She's a Northern Virginia resident, and this is her debut novel. I've heard wonderful things. It's sort of an atypical courtroom drama that's sort of precipitated by a medical treatment gone awry. So, I think, it sort of deals with like elevated hopes, and then the sort of crushing reality that follows that.
BURNEYAnd I'm also really excited -- it's not on my list, but it should've been, I'm really excited to read Elizabeth Acevedo's "Fire on High." I've just heard incredible things about her. I've heard her on this show before. She's a great sort of figure to have living and working in this region. And I'm really excited to dive into that one.
SIMONSI just want to mention, if you want to stay informed about all the literary happenings Washington has to offer, you can subscribe to Tayla's newsletter Get Lit D.C. I know I've mentioned it a few times this hour. Just head to kojoshow.org, and you'll find a link there. Tayla, we should talk for a moment about children's and young people's literature, as we chatted about earlier. I'm curious what your recommendations are for children's summer reading.
BURNEYSo, mine are very specific to the toddler set. (laugh) I have a one-and-a-half-year old at home.
SIMONSI wonder why?
BURNEYI don't know. It's because my kid literally wakes up saying the word jazz, because she wants me to read "J is for Jazz" to her, which is part of the BabyLit Alphabet Series. It's really fun. If you have a toddler and you're sort of stuck in reading the same books over and over again, this whole series is a little bit different take on the alphabet book. It's delightful. We're also very into pigs in our household right now, and all livestock, for that matter, but "Peppa Pig" is huge in our house. "Peppa in Space" is the newest one that I have on order, we'll be picking up later this week.
BURNEYAnd the Elephant and Piggie series, by Mo Willems. I mean, he has got incredible pics for all ranges or sort of the young readers. But that's a particular favorite, "The Thank You Book" in particular. If I try to read "We Are a Book," I am roundly rejected. (laugh) And then the other one that I love that a wonderful, dear friend Sara Blaine, who's a bookseller over at Solid State, put in my hands and said, you have to take this home. It's the last copy we have on the shelf, is "You Are Light," by Aaron Becker.
BURNEYIt's a really fun and simple interactive book. It has cutouts, all colors of the rainbow that you hold up to the light to see, and they sort of shift and change as you turn the pages. So, I enjoy things like that. I know that, like, push here, anything that's interactive for a kid is so wonderful, especially when they're small and their attention spans are short. (laugh)
SIMONSYeah. Aminatta, what books is your son reading?
FORNAWell, the book that I'm really dying to give him this summer is "Cinderella, Liberator" by Rebecca Solnit. We recently read a book called Jessie Burton's "The Restless Girls," which was a reimagining of "Twelve Dancing Princesses." And he loved that. And what's really fascinating about watching him read these, or reading them together -- because he's coming up to nine -- is these original stories fell out of fashion. Cinderella, plainly told, you know, has fallen out of fashion. And many fairy stories have, because they had such a, you know, sexist narrative.
FORNAHe's actually unaware of the originals. He's reading the re-imaginings for the first time. So, he takes it completely for granted that a princess is going to become a pilot, dethrone her father and save the nation. (laugh)
BURNEYI will say the other great sort of twists on fairytales that we love in our house, Bethan Woollvin has "Rapunzel," "Little Red" and "Hansel and Gretel." And they are wonderful and subversive, and they have incredible, wonderful, empowering twists to them.
FORNADo you think that, one day, they'll look back and all those Grimm will be forgotten, and these will be the new fairy stories? (laugh) And then they'll be re-imagined in themselves.
SIMONSWell, quickly, I want to ask you all, as we're running out of time, of all the books that you've read during the summer, you know, what do you return to again and again? Like, what is the ultimate classic summer read, real quick? Hannah?
DEPPI think I've read "The Once and Future King" every summer since I was about 12 years old. It's a retelling of King Arthur by T. H. White from the interwar periods. It does not get old. It's beautiful. It's adventurous. You grow up with King Arthur, you grow up with Camelot. Can't resist it.
FORNAI'd say C. S. Lewis's Narnia stories. I think they work for every age. (laugh)
DEPPAlso that one.
SIMONSHannah seconds that.
CHARLESI can always go back to Winnie the Pooh. My dad read them to me. I thought it was hilarious. I read them to my kids. They thought I was hilarious.
BURNEY"Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier. It's the one I've re-read the most, and there's something about that setting in the summertime that is especially appealing.
SIMONSAnd the one that stuck with me, I'd say, is "To Kill a Mockingbird." I had to read that in 11th grade, in Mrs. Toronto's English class. And, yeah, I've loved it ever since, that story.
CHARLESSo many lawyers in D.C. tell me that's the book they read that made them become a lawyer.
SIMONSYeah, exactly. We are talking to Ron Charles, book critic a Washington Post's Book World. Hannah Oliver Depp runs Loyalty Bookstore in Petworth. Tayla Burney, an avid reader and writer, and Aminatta Forna, an award-winning author and professor at Georgetown University. Thank you all for joining us. (all talking at once) Our summer book show was produced by Julie Depenbrock.
SIMONSComing up tomorrow, we'll check in on the latest efforts across the region to make scooters a safe and viable transit option for local residents. And we'll hear from advocates on both sides who say the D.C. Council's surprise decision to move Banneker High School to the vacant Shaw Junior High building while promising a new Shaw Middle School on the current Banneker site is still problematic. That starts tomorrow, at noon. That's it for today. Thanks for listening. I'm Sasha Anne Simons.
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