The world's top authors and critics join host Pamela Paul and editors at The New York Times Book Review to talk about the week's top books, what we're reading and what's going on in the literary world.
Thomas Mallon on the Career of Jonathan Franzen
59:33Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Crossroads,” has generated a lot of discussion, as his work tends to do. The novelist and critic Thomas Mallon, who reviewed “Crossroads” for us, is on the podcast this week to talk about the book and to place it in the context of Franzen’s entire career.“He is fundamentally a social novelist, and his basic unit of society is the family,” Mallon says. “Always families are important in Franzen, and we move outward from the family into the business, into the town, into whatever the larger units are. His novels are likely to remain as indicators of what the world was like at the time he was writing. This new novel is a little bit different in that he’s going back 50 years. The Nixon era is now, definitely, historical novel material.”Joshua Ferris visits the podcast to talk about his new novel, “A Calling for Charlie Barnes.”“It’s basically about a guy who has floundered all his life until the moment that he gets pancreatic cancer,” Ferris says. “His diagnosis is a little back and forth, he’s not really being honest with too many people in his life about what’s going on. But eventually this rather thundering and life-changing disease happens to him. He’s got to deal with it, he’s got to get an operation and go through chemo and all the rest of it. And he changes his life. That’s sort of the plot of the book, I suppose. But it’s narrated by a tricky fellow who is related to him and determines the narrative as much as Charlie himself.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and our new book critics, Molly Young and Alexandra Jacobs, introduce themselves and talk about their approaches to literary criticism. Pamela Paul is the host.We would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to email@example.com.
Andrea Elliott on ‘Invisible Child’
57:40In 2013, the front page of The New York Times devoted five straight days to the story of Dasani, an 11-year-old Black girl who lived in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. Now, Andrea Elliott, the reporter of that series, has published her first book, “Invisible Child,” which tells the full story of Dasani and her family up to the present day. On this week’s podcast, Elliott discusses how she came to focus her reporting on Dasani.“I’ve always believed as a journalist that the story shows itself to you, and you just have to do the work of being there and being present for as long as possible until it becomes more clear,” Elliott says. “In the very beginning, I had three families I was following at that shelter. And I had this approach that a lot of journalists take, that you need to capture three different families to give a sense of the spectrum of experience. But what I think becomes more important to the reader is to be able to identify deeply with one story, one protagonist, and follow that person.” Dasani became that person, in part, Elliott says, because “she was somebody who, at a very young age, could articulate in a moving and profound way her experience. And that’s a rare trait even in adults.”The stand-up comedian, actress, producer and publisher Phoebe Robinson visits the podcast to discuss her new book of essays, “Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes.”“Book writing is a completely different style of writing than stand-up,” Robinson says. “Stand-up, there’s a rhythm and you’re aware of the laughs and how they’re hitting. With a book you can really have more flavor with it; you can be vulnerable, you can slow it down, have some down beats, you could be really funny. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult to write stand-up versus book writing. They both have their challenges.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Elizabeth Harris has news from the publishing world; and Gregory Cowles and John Williams talk about what they’ve been reading. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:“The Diary of a Country Priest” by Georges Bernanos“The Magician” by Colm Toibin“The Outlaw Ocean” by Ian Urbina
Richard Powers on ‘Bewilderment’
1:04:46In “Bewilderment,” Richard Powers’s first novel since he won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Overstory,” an astrobiologist named Theo Byrne looks for life on other planets while struggling to raise his highly sensitive 9-year-old son, Robin. On this week’s podcast, Powers compares Theo’s work in the galaxy with his relationship on the ground.“If there are all of these millions of exoplanets out there are and they are all subject to radically different conditions, what would life look like in these conditions that are so very different from Earth?” Power says that a similar question “is also the preoccupation of most literature. Books themselves are empathy machines and travels to other planets. They’re ways that we have of participating in sensibilities that are not ours. So when Robin asks this question — which is bigger, outer space or inner? — that question of where are we going, who are we, why are we the way we are, gets turned inward, to this question of how do I understand someone who’s so profoundly different from myself? And in that way, travel to other planets always becomes travel to other people.”Honorée Fanonne Jeffers visits the podcast to discuss her best-selling debut novel, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.” Among other subjects, Jeffers talks about why the book’s main character, Ailey Pearl Garfield, who comes from a long family line of physicians, becomes a historian herself.“It’s a gesture to the way that I grew up learning about African American history,” she says. “I’m an English professor, a creative writing professor, but when I was a little girl I would sit up underneath the old people. I never really was a child that liked to play with other children. I would sort of scoot into a corner so I wouldn’t be noticed and I would listen to the old people talk about the way they grew up, growing up in segregation, growing up in Jim Crow, and then some of the stories that they remembered from the old people who had been born into slavery, like my great grandma Mandy Napier, so it had a great impact on me, and I think that’s why I made Ailey an eventual historian.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; and Gregory Cowles and John Williams talk about what they’ve been reading. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:“When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamín Labatut“On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed“Congratulations, by the Way” by George Saunders“A Motor-Flight Through France” by Edith Wharton
Randall Kennedy on 'Say It Loud!'
1:13:59The Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy’s new book, “Say It Loud!,” collects 29 of his essays. Kennedy’s opinions about the subjects listed in the book’s subtitle — race, law, history and culture — tend to be complex, and he’s not afraid to change his mind. He says on the podcast that there’s “no shame” in admitting you’re wrong, and that he does just that in the book when he finds it appropriate.“I thought that the United States was much further down the road to racial decency than it is,” Kennedy says. “Donald Trump obviously trafficked in racial resentment, racial prejudice in a way that I thought was securely locked in the past. This has had a big influence on me. I used to be a quite confident racial optimist. I am not any longer. I’m still in the optimistic camp — I do think that we shall overcome — but I’m uneasy. I’m uneasy in a way that was simply not the case, let’s say, 10 years ago.”Mary Roach visits the podcast to discuss her new book, “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.” It’s impossible to choose just one moment to highlight from this interview, which includes but is not limited to the following subjects: caterpillars called into court, moose crash test dummies, and how to distinguish (and why you would want to) between a real and fake tiger penis.Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Elizabeth Harris has news from the publishing world; and Jennifer Szalai and John Williams talk about books they’ve recently reviewed. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed by the critics this week:“The Contrarian” by Max Chafkin“Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Colson Whitehead on 'Harlem Shuffle'
1:09:07Colson Whitehead’s new novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” revolves around Ray Carney, a furniture retailer in Harlem in the 1960s with a sideline in crime. It’s a relatively lighthearted novel, certainly compared to “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys,” Whitehead’s two previous novels, each of which won the Pulitzer Prize.“I usually do a lighter book, then a heavier book, but I felt compelled to write ‘The Nickel Boys’ at the time that I did,” Whitehead says on this week’s podcast. “I knew that in the crime genre, there’s more room for jokes. There’s just a lot more room for play. So I could exercise my humor muscle again. And then immediately, Carney … I wanted him to win, as soon as he appeared on the page. He was someone who was not as determined by circumstances — slavery, Jim Crow — as the characters in those previous two novels. And he pulls off some capers. And I think we — or at least I was rooting for him. So immediately the tone was different, and I gave myself to it.”Colm Toibin visits the podcast to talk about his new novel, “The Magician,” based on the life of the great German writer Thomas Mann. Toibin says that the book is not an attempt to “inhabit” Mann, or to fully understand him, which is impossible with such a complex person.“It’s not an attempt to pin him down, so that by the end of the book you really know him,” Toibin says. “I’m as interested in his unknowability as I am in attempting to draw a very clear portrait of him. I think it’s an important question. I often hear novelists saying, ‘I felt I really knew my character.’ And I often feel the opposite. I often feel my character has become even more evasive the further attempts I have made to enter their spirit.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Gregory Cowles and John Williams talk about what they’ve been reading. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:“A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor“Latecomers” by Anita Brookner“The Makioka Sisters” by Junichiro Tanizaki
Brandon Taylor on the Sally Rooney Phenomenon
1:05:32The novelist Brandon Taylor, who has generated his own buzz with his debut novel, “Real Life,” and a collection of stories, “Filthy Animals,” visits the podcast to discuss the much-discussed work of Sally Rooney. Taylor recently reviewed her third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” On the podcast, he describes Rooney’s writing as an “intense, melancholic tractor beam.”“She has this really great, tactile metaphorical sense, but it’s never overworked,” he says. “Her style is so clean. That is the word I come to most often in describing her style. It is so clean, so pristine.” Like her two previous books, this one is fueled by the vexations of intimate relationships. “Ultimately, if you’re a Sally Rooney fan, I think you’ll love this novel,” Taylor says. “And if you’re a Sally Rooney skeptic, I think she will acknowledge your concerns but maybe not answer them in full.”Another Rooney, David Rooney, visits the podcast to discuss his new book, “About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks.”“There’s something about clocks and watches,” he says.” They have more meaning to many people than other artifacts. I wasn’t quite sure why. I was trying to get behind the faces of clocks and watches, to understand not so much how they work — although that’s fascinating — but what they mean, and what they’ve always meant, through history, across cultures.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Jennifer Szalai and John Williams talk about books that have been recently reviewed. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed by the Times’s critics this week:“The Failed Promise” by Robert S. Levine“The War for Gloria” by Atticus Lish“The Magician” by Colm Toibin
Andrew Sullivan on Being ‘Out on a Limb’
1:07:28“Out on a Limb” is a selection of Andrew Sullivan’s essays from the past 32 years of American history. On this week’s podcast, Sullivan talks about the book and his feelings about some of the very contentious public arguments in which he’s been involved.“You’re never at a moment of finality in politics or intellectual life. You’re always just about to be proven wrong again,” Sullivan says. “I have developed a very thick skin. You have to. I was very controversial in the gay rights movement very early on. The case for marriage equality was bitterly opposed by some gay activists, and I was targeted and picketed by gay people sometimes, for my first book. So I’ve always accepted that that’s part of the price. I am a sensitive person and it does hurt my feelings, obviously, but I think my answer is that it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as it isn’t true. And if it’s true, hear it, take it in, try and figure out what insight they have about you and change. If it isn’t, forget it.”Leila Slimani’s new novel, “In the Country of Others,” is the first installment of a planned trilogy loosely based on the lives of the author’s grandparents. On this episode of the podcast, Slimani talks about why she’s writing the autobiographical material as fiction.“Imagination is a great power that we have,” she says. “Even if my family is interesting in certain ways, it’s not as interesting as I wanted. So I need to add other things, and I need to feel completely free. I don’t really want to tell about reality but about what fascinates me.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Lauren Christensen, Andrew Lavallee and John Williams talk about what they’ve been reading. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:“Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura“A Visitation of Spirits” by Randall Kenan“Loop” by Brenda Lozano
A.O. Scott Talks About William Maxwell
59:48A.O. Scott, The Times’s co-chief film critic, returns to the Book Review’s podcast this week to discuss the work of William Maxwell, the latest subject in Scott’s essay series The Americans, about writers who give a sense of the country’s complex identity. In his novels and stories, Maxwell frequently returned to small-town Illinois, and to, as Scott describes it, the “particular civilization and culture and society that he knew growing up.”“In so many of these books,” Scott says, “he was trying in a sense to figure out himself by figuring how where he had come from. It was inexhaustible. The thing that’s really remarkable about his revisiting his family, his family’s story and the town where they lived is just how many layers are there. In what seems like a simple, small, provincial place, just how much depth and complexity and comedy and pathos live there.”Eyal Press visits the podcast to discuss his new book, “Dirty Work,” about the lives of workers in slaughterhouses, correctional facilities and other morally fraught places. Press says that the people who do this work make inequality one of the book’s primary themes.“One of the messages of the book is that it’s very rarely the privileged and the powerful,” Press says. “It’s more likely to be people at the bottom of the social ladder, people with fewer choices and opportunities, who are thrust into these ethically troubling roles that they carry out in a sense on society’s behalf and in our name.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Dwight Garner and Jennifer Szalai discuss books they’ve recently reviewed. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed by the Times’s critics this week:“Reign of Terror” by Spencer Ackerman“Playlist for the Apocalypse” by Rita Dove
Life at Seven Miles Below the Sea
55:15In her new book, “The Brilliant Abyss,” Helen Scales writes about the largely unseen realm of the deepest parts of the ocean. On this week’s podcast, she talks about the life down there — and how long it took us to realize there was any at all.“It wasn’t so long ago, maybe 200 years ago, that most people — scientists, the brightest minds we had — assumed that life only went down as far as sunlight reaches, so the first 600 feet or so,” Scales says. “But what’s so fascinating is that life does go all the way to the very, very bottom; down to seven miles, which is the deepest point, just about. And there are ways in which life has found adaptations to all of these crazy, extreme conditions in the deep, and that’s what we’re really doing a lot of the time, as marine biologists working in the deepest, is finding that stuff and asking the question: ‘How are you here?’”Rebecca Donner visits the podcast to discuss her new book, “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days,” which recounts the story of Mildred Harnack, Donner’s great-great-aunt, an American woman executed in 1943 for being a member of the German resistance to the Nazis during World War II.“She most definitely saw herself as a resistance fighter, and she certainly did not see herself as a spy,” Donner says. “She engaged in acts of espionage in order to undermine the Nazi regime, but she never met with a control officer, she never accepted money. She worked in an unofficial capacity.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Elizabeth Harris has news from the publishing world; and Gal Beckerman and John Williams talk about what they’re reading. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:“Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman“Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy“Last Best Hope” by George Packer
Dana Spiotta Talks About ‘Wayward’
55:50In Dana Spiotta’s new novel, “Wayward,” a woman named Sam buys a dilapidated house in a neglected neighborhood in Syracuse, leaving her husband and her daughter in order to face down big midlife questions.“She is what we used to call a housewife, a stay-at-home mom,” Spiotta says on this week’s podcast, describing her protagonist. “She has one daughter, she’s married to a lawyer. It’s not an unhappy marriage. I wanted to avoid a lot of clichés with her. I didn’t want it to be an unhappy marriage that was the problem. And I didn’t want him to leave her for a younger woman. I didn’t want her to be worried about her looks. She never thinks about wrinkles or her looks very much in the book. She doesn’t even look in the mirror anymore. She’s not concerned about that.”What she’s concerned about is living a more honest and purposeful life, and the novel follows her efforts to do that.Ash Davidson visits the podcast to discuss her debut novel, “Damnation Spring,” set in a tightknit logging community in Northern California in the late 1970s. Davidson describes how the book was partly inspired by her parents’ memories of living in the area.“I grew up listening to my parents’ stories of this place, and it is the most beautiful place they have ever lived, and that beauty is also the source of its own destruction,” she says. “So those stories became almost like a mythology of my childhood, and I think I always kept a folder of them in my head, where I was filing them away. I used a lot of them as scaffolding for the novel, in the early years of writing it. Gradually, as time went on and the story got strong enough to stand on its own, I was able to strip away that scaffolding of their stories and let the fictional narrative shine through.”Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Elisabeth Egan and John Williams talk about what they’re reading. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:“Emerson” by Robert D. Richardson Jr.“Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi“The Post-Birthday World” by Lionel Shriver