Everyone thinks D.C. is lousy with politicians and lobbyists. But it's also chock-full of crime fiction writers.
The hot summer months can feel unbearable, but the best way to beat the heat is to hunker down with a good book.
If you’re a bookworm or just looking for your next great read, we’re sitting down with local book experts to help you find the perfect literary adventure. Sit back, relax, and take notes! We’ve got your guide to the very best books of the season.
This show originally aired on August 3, 2020.
Produced by Kayla Hewitt
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we're revisiting one of our favorite conversations from earlier this summer with Author and National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Jason Reynolds in the wake of George Floyd's killing, protests against police violence and systemic racism were unfolding across the country and still are. Jason joined us on Kojo for Kids to talk about lessons from his recently published remix of Ibram X. Kendi's "Stamped," the racism engraved in American society and his hope for a better future.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first hunkering down with a good book is a great way to escape the heat during the warmer months. This year summer reading is as vital as ever, allowing readers to flee the realities of the pandemic or educate themselves on the history of racial injustice. So what have local book critics and bookstore owners been reading lately? Grab a pen and start taking notes for your own reading list, because it's our annual summer book show. Joining me now is Ron Charles. He's a Critic for The Washington Post Book World and the Host of the "Totally Hip Book Review." Ron Charles, good to talk to you again.
RON CHARLESOh, it's so nice to be back.
NNAMDIDerrick Young also joins us. Derrick is the Owner of Mahogany Books. Derrick, thank you for joining us.
DERRICK YOUNGHow are you doing, Kojo?
NNAMDII'm doing as well as I can. Ron Charles, I'll start with you. Is this a time to get to that 400 page classic you always meant to read or are you favoring lighter reads right now?
CHARLESWell, I am not favoring 1,000 page Russian novels right now actually. And, you know, at first when this started we all thought everyone wanted to read about the pandemic. So we made up these lists of other pandemic novels and, gosh, I think that was a big turnoff. You know, I think that was a mistake. People in this situation don't want to read about it, too, I don't think.
NNAMDIWhat did you say to those who feel pressured to challenges themselves with daunting reads never the less, this summer?
CHARLESGive yourself a break. I mean, we're all working four times as much and getting half as much done. The last thing you need is to put some kind of pressure on yourself. Just read what you want. You know, really take it easy honestly.
NNAMDIDerrick Young, what kind of books have you been turning to lately?
YOUNGWell, I've been doing a lot of lighter fare reading. Sci-Fi is some of my favorite. I love comics. But I actually picked up Shaun King's new book "Make Change." And I got to say, I am really really enjoying it. Even though I thought I was in a mood for something lighter.
NNAMDIDerrick, are there any books from the last year or so that you believe have been overlooked by readers?
YOUNGYes. I think one of my favorite ones that people have somewhat overlooked is Jacqueline Woodson's newest book "Red at the Bone." I just think she's a fantastic writer and she has these stories that really get at the root of people, family history environment. She's able to mesh them altogether into these fantastic reads. So I think if people are looking for just a really good fiction read, just good narrative, good writing, I would always recommend Jacqueline Woodson especially her newest book "Red at the Bone."
NNAMDIIs "Red in the Bone" a collection of stories?
YOUNGNo. It is a one-shot novel that she wrote. It's not a series. It's a one off book that she wrote.
NNAMDI"Red at the Bone." Ron Charles, as we've been saying, a lot of us are looking for a bit of escapism these days. Do you have any books that you would recommend for readers looking for a break from reality?
CHARLESThere's a very interesting book for political junkies who want to a break from reality. And it's by Curtis Sittenfeld called "Rodham." It starts like a biography or a memoir of Hillary. You know, she's at Yale. She's a top student. She meets this magnetic guy named Bill. And so you're thinking, "Okay, this is a story I know, you know, from all those political ads." But then all of a sudden Hillary breaks up with Bill and drives away. And the rest of the novel is all about what would have happened to Hillary and Bill and America if they had not gotten married. It's really fascinating.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you've also enjoyed Christopher Buckley's "Make Russia Great Again." Tell us about that.
CHARLESOh, that is hilarious. I mean, I've been waiting a while for a funny novel about Donald Trump. We've had some really bitter novels about Donald Trump, and then, of course, a lot of non-fiction both pro and con, but this is just hilarious. I mean, he imagines that Donald needs a new chief of staff and so he hires this guy, who was head of hospitality at one of his resorts to take over and to negotiate with this Russian assassin. And it's just full of barely disguised political figures, you know, in Washington, of course, Trump. And it is just one hilarious gag after another.
NNAMDIAnd there seems to be a certain lack of bitterness if you will that you found in other novels about Donald Trump.
CHARLESYeah, that's what I really liked. You know, I mean, it's hard on either side not be angry about what's going on. And Buckley just seems to be having fun with it. I mean, obviously die hard Trump fans are going to be offended, but anybody else I think is just going to laugh.
NNAMDIOn the other end of that spectrum, some readers have sought out dystopian fiction to read this summer. What books would you recommend to those people?
CHARLESWell, Lydia Millet has a book about climate change, a novel called "The Children's Bible" that is really smart. It starts almost like a teen comedy and you think, "You know, okay, I don't know where this is going." It's about a bunch of families, who rent a big house on the East Coast. The adults are all chatting and drinking. The kids are all out on the shore, you know, having fun, but them a hurricane sweeps up the East Coast and the house is badly flooded and destroyed, and the adults just don't know what to do. They just freak out. And it's up to the kids to try and work out a solution and save everybody.
CHARLESSo it's this metaphor obviously of climate change and how the old generation is sort dropping the ball and the new generation has to come along and figure out how to clean up this mess. I thought it was really smart and really engaging. Lydia Millet's "A Children's Bible."
NNAMDIHere now is Chris in Arlington, Virginia. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYeah, I just wanted to share my approach these days. I was deployed to Afghanistan a couple of years ago. And when I was there I decided to start reading all the classics that I missed growing up, you know, "Oliver Twist" and "David Copperfield" and on and on. I'm trying to work my way down the list of 100 greatest books ever written. And so I'll alternate with something contemporary and then go back to a classic I missed growing up, and then reading something contemporary.
NNAMDIVery interesting. How has that been working out for you? Are you enjoying it?
CHRISIt's very very good. I mean, there are some books I just love. Those two I just mentioned and then some other classics, "Melville," "Moby Dick." So there's a lot of good ones that are famous for a reason and they were very good. But then, you know, I read some contemporary. I'm working my way through Mary Trump's book right now. It's been a good mix.
NNAMDIWow. We had to study "Moby Dick" in high school. I think it took me about six months to read it, but thank you very much for your call. Derrick, unlike our last caller some listeners may feel they don't have the time to invest in a lot of reading. Are there any books you would recommend to the person who doesn't have that much time or considers themselves a slow reader?
YOUNGYes. There are a number of great short story books out there as well as novellas. One of my favorites it's a three-part novella written by Nnedi Okorafor called "Binti." It's a great sci-fi fiction book fantasy. Aliens, fighting, action, love, it's incredible, but what I really enjoy about is that she's able to take the story and break it up into these three parts that a reader can sink their teeth into without having to overcommit in terms of time. So I mean, they can knock it out in a week or two, but it's a fast fun paced read and it takes you away from reality. And then when you're ready to kind of jump back into it you can jump into the next novella. So that's one of my favorites I always recommend to readers.
NNAMDIYou're also recommending a book by John Henrik Clarke, right?
YOUNGYes, yes. Now if you want something a little bit deeper then one of my favorite books is a short history book called "Christopher Columbus and the African Holocaust." And I think it's a great book for people, who are trying to really understand what was -- how did this transatlantic slave trade happen, what was the instigating factors and the onset of racism and shadow slavery. And John Henrik Clarke has a great book that, I think in less than 150 pages, he really gives you a really good overview and sets you up to do deeper dives once you're ready to take on some media reads.
NNAMDIAnd that is John Henrik Clarke, right?
NNAMDIRon Charles, Derrick Young, but I'll start with you, Ron, a lot of bookworms find their latest reads by, well, perusing local bookstores and libraries. Now, because of health concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic those visits are not an option. Are there other ways for readers to find their new favorite books, Ron?
CHARLESThere are a lot of good blogs starting up. Your local library is still operating even if you can't get into it. You know, those librarians have been hard at work. They've updated their websites. A lot of them are offering curb-side pickup, which is, you know, the kind of creative thing you'd expect from librarians. You can download books on your e-reader device. And if you don't know how to do that just log into the library and send them an email and a librarian will talk you through how to do that. There are literally millions of free and current, not just old stuff, but current books you can download. And you can download audiobooks and movies too.
NNAMDIWhat say you, Derrick Young?
YOUNGSo social media is the place to go. I know Instagram and Twitter are two great places to not only find great resources that we recommend. I mean, even books that are from -- that are brand new hot off the presses that aren't from some of the major publishers, but are great new voices. We're always promoting those on Instagram. But I also recommend Twitter and IG, because it's a great way to engage with the authors. They really kind of go into those conversations and help to kind of give you some insight into the books before you, you know, commit to it, because you don't have a chance to really sit down peruse it in a store.
NNAMDISince the pandemic began independent bookstores across the region and the country have pivoted toward online sales. Your bookshop Mahogany Books started as an online store. How has this transition been for you?
YOUNGIt's been fantastic. We really have -- have really enjoyed the fact that we haven't had to do too much in terms of switching from a physical location to an online space. So that was a little bit of worry off of our head. However, you know, of course, with the scale of business improving the number of -- with the volume improving we've had to scale up, which is also good, because we get to bring on new people and, you know, create new jobs for individuals, but it's been a great opportunity and we've really enjoyed the success that we've had so far.
NNAMDIWhen we spoke earlier this summer, Derrick, many antiracist titles were on backorder and you were recommending titles for a number of people calling for advice. Is that still going on? Is that still the case?
YOUNGYes. It is. Yes, it is. A lot of those books are now starting to come off of reprint so they're now available. However, there are still some titles that are -- I think people are overlooking. And, of course, one of my favorites is the Damon Young book "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker" as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates, his first books is a memoir "The Beautiful Struggle." I think those are two great books that people should read to help get you inside of the mindset of, you know, an African American and what they're dealing with so you can understand and empathize with them.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Washington Post Book Critic Ron Charles and Mahogany Bookstore owner Derrick Young. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're exploring recommendations for your summer book reading with Derrick Young, co-owner of Mahogany Books. And Ron Charles, Critic for The Washington Post Book World and Host of "The Totally Hip Book Review." Here is Eric in Columbus, Ohio. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERIEHi. My name is Erie and I said that the book that I've been reading over and over is "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," because my childcare is not open. And I just wanted to give a shout out to all the men who've been on air this hour talking about the leisure time they've had to read books in.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Erie. Sorry I called you Eric. I didn't notice that was an “e” at the end of your name. Let's move on to Karen in Fairfax, Virginia. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENHi, there. I have to say I love book talk shows. I listen to quite a lot of them. I want to tell you about a book called "Apeirogon." I'll spell it for you. It's, A-p-e-i-r-o-g-o-n by Colum McCann. This is one of the most unique books I have read in a long time. It's a blending of fiction and non-fiction. It's written by an Irish man, who has no skin in this game. It's about the occupation, the Palestinian occupation. I have to say having read this book it has changed my whole view on occupation. It's a story of two men who are real. I've heard Colum McCann interview them subsequently on "Politics and Prose and Book Passage."
KARENThese two men, one is Israeli, one is a Palestinian, both have lost daughters, young daughters through horrible situations in the Middle East. These two men then begin to work on a way of getting people to understand what the occupation is really like. And because it's a blend of fiction non-fiction you learn a great deal of history. But you also get the true story of these -- the grief that these two families go through. And the interesting construction is it's made up of 1,000 mini-chapters. A mini-chapter might be a picture. It might be a sentence. It might be three pages.
KARENColum McCann is an incredible writer. One of his other books is "Let the Great World Spin," which is another terrific book. For anybody who'd like to learn about the occupation and I have to say it doesn't matter what your view is on it to begin with. You really learn and this book is -- I have given this book to half a dozen people already. Everyone has had the same response. And if you'd like to know what "apeirogon" means? Would you like to know?
KARENOkay. The title means -- an "apeirogon" is a shape with countably infinitive number of sides.
NNAMDICountably infinitive number of sides, okay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. We've discussed Colum McCann quite a bit on this broadcast before. Derrick Young, are there any books that you have not yet had a chance to read that you're excited to pick up?
YOUNGOh, my goodness. Yes. So that's the -- the challenge with being a bookseller is all of these great books that are coming out. But very next on my list is Eddie Glaude's "Begin Again." It's his book that basically examines James Baldwin's works for a little bit over a decade. I forget the years. I think it's 1963 to '72 or '73 something like that. And he juxtaposes it against what's happening now.
YOUNGSo he recounts James Baldwin's, his growth personally and through his writings and in confronting race and racism. And he places it on top of today, you know, how it impacts us and what we should be looking at and how we should be countering some of the pushback that we're seeing when it comes to social justice and reform. So that book is -- as soon as I finish Shaun King's book that's the book I'm jumping to right away.
NNAMDIPatricia tweets that she's reading "The Long Pedal of the Sea" by Isabel Allende. "Romantic and historical, loved reading it," she says, "in my native language, Spanish." Sarah tweets, "Highly recommend Chuck Wendig's 'Wanderers,' amazingly prescient and a gripping plot, hard to put down." And now here is Carl in Washington D.C. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLHey, Kojo. Hey, first a question. I don't have internet access in my apartment. I want to buy a book over the phone using my credit card. Can you tell me the names of any bookstores in D.C. or the nearby area, anywhere in the country really where I can call and order a book over the phone with a credit card?
NNAMDIDerrick Young, can he do that at Mahogany Books?
YOUNGHe sure enough can. We do that all the time.
NNAMDIGive him your phone number, please.
YOUNGYou can reach us at 202-844-2063.
NNAMDII think you can also do that at Politics and Prose and a number of other bookstores around town. Just look them up. Ron Charles, are there any upcoming books that you're excited for readers to discover?
CHARLESYes. There are. There is a really interesting novel by Darin Strauss called "The Queen of Tuesday," which is all about Lucille Ball. It's this incredible story and it reminds you of just what an amazing presence she was in the 1950s and 60s. She dominated American TV and popular culture in a way that nobody else had, and I think nobody else ever will. This is a story about her with "I Love Lucy" and her relationship with Desi and it blends in the story of the author's grandfather, who had a chance encounter with Lucille Ball at a demolition party thrown by Donald Trump's father and that part is all true.
NNAMDIGot to be fascinating. You recently reviewed Maggie O'Farrell's "Hamnet." Tell us what that book is about.
CHARLESThat book just tore me up. It's a book about the death of William Shakespeare's only son when he was 11. And it's about the reaction of Anne Hathaway, his mother and William Shakespeare and how they both responded in very different ways. William Shakespeare ran off basically to London and buried himself in his plays, comedies, which shocked his wife and tragedies, and then his mother and her reaction. It is a novel about the way grief changes and challenges a marriage and it is just heartbreaking and beautiful.
NNAMDII saw a movie, an independent film, about that. I think about maybe less than a year ago. It was really fascinating. You've also written about Marisel Vera's "The Taste of Sugar," calling it a masterful work of historical fiction. Tell us about that book.
CHARLESYeah. This is a part of history I had never heard of. Maybe other people knew this, but in Puerto Rico, around 1900 when that terrible hurricane struck, the economy was destroyed. America had taken possession recently and sort of felt stuck with this economic disaster, which they then made much much worse. And about 5,000 Puerto Ricans were shipped off to Hawaii on the promise of great jobs working on the sugarcane fields. And it's, you know, basically was a trick. I mean, by the time they got there, they were slaves essentially in Hawaii. It's an incredible story about husband and wife and their ordeal through all this.
NNAMDIHere is Julia in Rockville, Maryland. Julia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JULIAHi, Kojo. How are you?
JULIASo I've also been reading a lot of escapism, magical realism, Agatha Christi and also delving back into kids' books, because there's just a light heartedness about "The Mysterious Benedict Society" that I don't find with adult books all the time.
NNAMDIWow. So you've been enjoying that.
JULIAI have, really have been.
NNAMDIDerrick, are there any works of non-fiction that you would recommend to our listeners?
YOUNGWow. There are quite a bit. I think where I start at is I love, again, some of the classics that I kind of grew up with starting in college. Dr. Na'im Akbar has a great series of books that really kind of breaks down the idea of race and racism. One of my favorites is "Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery." And he talks about symbology and how that impacts people, how it can be used as propaganda, and as we're talking about, you know, Confederate statues and flags and things like that, you know, again, it helps to kind of see it through the other lens.
YOUNGBut he has a number of books and they're short again. But it gives you a great overview so that you can -- once you find something that you'd like you can jump into something a little bit meatier. So I always love Dr. Na'im Akbar. He is a really great resource for readers.
NNAMDIBack in the day when I used to interview Na'im Akbar and he got into the dispute over good hair and bad hair among African Americans he would rub his bald head and say, "The only bad hair is no hair like I have right now," but I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Derrick Young is the Co-Owner of Mahogany Books. Derrick Young, thank you so much for joining us.
YOUNGNo problem. Thank you.
NNAMDIRon Charles is a Critic for The Washington Post Book World and Host of "The Totally Hip Book Review." Ron Charles, always a pleasure.
CHARLESThank you so much for having on.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back it will be Kojo for Kids with Author Fred Bowen. Remember adults can listen, but only kids can call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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