Readers, times are changing quickly these days, and you better believe that’s impacting our podcasting lives here at WSIRN HQ. When I sat down to talk with today’s guest Jud Ashman, we were still crossing our fingers that we’d get to meet in person at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. Jud is the festival’s co-founder and Gaithersburg’s mayor. Between then and now, that event has been canceled due to COVID-19. (There will be some online programming, so watch their website for more information if you’re intrigued.)
Today, Jud and I are giving you an insiders’ look at what goes into the planning and establishment of those community book events we’ve so enjoyed in the past and that WILL happen again—specifically, how the Gaithersburg Book Festival was born.
Jud and I also dig into his eclectic personal reading life, from westerns to middle grade fiction to historical nonfiction, to a book he describes as JAW DROPPINGLY GOOD… and I’m recommending 3 books to him like a human, not an algorithm. That’s a joke, but also a totally real concern when literary matchmaking. I explain the difference in the episode, so let’s get to it!
Summer reading is coming
Readers, we send an email every Tuesday with 3 bookish things I love, 1 thing I don’t, and what I’m reading now. If you want fun, informative, and delightful links to all things books and reading with a little dose of my personal reading habits then sign up for the weekly newsletter.
And be sure to do that now because in 2 weeks we’re sending all subscribers my ninth annual Summer Reading Guide. This is THE answer to what you should read next this summer. So sign up now.
ANNE: Listeners, if you’re wondering why I don’t recommend the same books all the time it’s because I have a list that says, Anne, you gotta pull it back for at least another few months on these titles. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 232.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, our newsletter is THE place to go for our news and happenings. That’s where I announce live events, like the upcoming Summer Reading Guide Unboxing, plus we make calls for listener feedback, and ask for submissions for special episodes like our giftable book recommendations in Episode 212.
But it’s not just news and special events. We send an email every Tuesday with 3 bookish things I love, 1 thing I don’t, and what I’m reading now. If you want fun, informative, and delightful links to all things books and reading with a little dose of my personal reading habits then sign up for the weekly newsletter at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter. And be sure to do that now because in 2 weeks we’re sending all subscribers my ninth annual Summer Reading Guide. This is THE answer to what you should read next this summer.
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Readers, times are changing quickly these days, and you better believe that’s impacting our podcasting lives here at What Should I Read Next Headquarters. When I sat down to talk with today’s guest Jud Ashman, we were still crossing our fingers that we’d get to meet in person at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. Jud is the festival’s co-founder and Gaithersburg’s mayor. Between then when we recorded and today, that event has been canceled due to covid-19. Today, Jud and I are giving you the vicarious literary festival experience. We’re bringing an insiders’ look at what goes into the planning and establishment of those community book events we’ve so enjoyed in the past and that WILL happen again in the future—specifically, we’re talking about how the Gaithersburg Book Festival was born.
Jud and I also dig into his eclectic personal reading life, from westerns to middle grade fiction to historical nonfiction, all the way to a book he describes as JAW DROPPINGLY GOOD… and I’m recommending 3 books to him like a human, not like an algorithm. That’s a joke, but also a totally real concern when literary matchmaking. I’ll explain the difference in a little bit — let’s get to it.
Jud, welcome to the show.
JUD: Thank you.
ANNE: I’m really excited to talk to you today. You have a unique perspective on your world and also the literary world. Tell our listeners what it is you do professionally.
JUD: [LAUGHS] There’s several answers to this actually because I think the most notable thing about what I do is that I’m the mayor of the third largest city in Maryland, Gaithersburg. Maryland’s a state with a lot of small cities and Gaithersburg has about 70,000 residents which doesn’t seem large, but for Maryland, it is number three behind Baltimore and Frederick. And I’m the founder and chair of the Gaithersburg Book Festival which is now in its 11th year, and then in my day job I have a web design development and hosting company because unfortunately, mayor’s not a full time job. Although it often seems that way. I think the community expectations that way, it doesn’t pay that way. But I love what I do, and all three hats are fun for me to wear and so life is good.
ANNE: I imagine any one of those roles could be a full time gig.
ANNE: Now I’d love to hear what came first, your mayoral position [JUD LAUGHS] or your literary festival position? How do those interact for you?
JUD: I had been in office as a city council member. Back in 2008 I came up with the idea for the book festival. I’d been in office on city council for about a year and I’d brought the idea to my then-mayor, and fellow members of the council and luckily got great support for it. So the festival had been going on for several years before I became mayor, and I wasn’t mayor first, but I don’t think that having the book festival hurt when I ran for mayor. [LAUGHS] I think generally there’s not a lot to be controversial about a book festival. I think people generally liked it and appreciated the cultural opportunity in the city, and so, I won’t say it didn’t help.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] What made you think that the Gaithersburg community could benefit from a literary festival? I mean my community started a flea market that’s pretty great, you know, that happens just outside downtown with lots of vendors and everything [JUD LAUGHS] we don’t have a book festival like y’all have yet, so what was the thought process behind that?
JUD: Well it was … I like to think it was kinda in my blood. I grew up in Miami, FL, then came up to D.C., then Gaithersburg. Miami is the home of the Miami Book Fair International started by one of my idols Mitchell Kaplan who owns Books and Books down in Coral Gables, one of the legendary bookstores. And so I sorta grew up with the Miami Book Fair around and then when I came up to D.C. there was a point at which Former First Lady Laura Bush and the Library of Congress at the time James Billington started the National Book Festival, which happened every year on The Mall. Those of you who don’t know, The Mall is sorta that grassy area between the Capitol and The Washington Monument, and there was all these big tents and they got some great authors on the planet to come speak every year, and it was just this wonderful, wonderful day, wonderful experience.
And there was a point in 2008 were the Bush administration was leaving and the National Book Festival being a fall event, an election campaign was happening, we didn’t know who was going to be elected and whether or not they would continue the National Book Festival. So I was there that day and I remember the Librarian of Congress coming on stage and saying, I implore you to write letters and ask the next administration to continue this event. And I was in the audience. I’d been on the council for a year at that point and I thought, what a shame if they were to cancel this event. But why couldn’t we do one of our own?
And then the juice really started to flow because Gaithersburg is right outside D.C. We’re a 25-minute drive. There are tons of great authors, journalists, educators, within an hour’s drive. Why couldn’t we do one of our own, and at the same time it struck me that we sorta could build a cultural identity for our suburban city with this event. It’s a very highly educated area. You know, for years, I was riding metro every day to work. Just go on metro and you can count how many people are reading books. Everyone’s got a book in hand. [ANNE LAUGHS] I knew the market was there. I just saw it as a great opportunity for our city to sorta plant a flag on the culture map. We call it the Gaithersburg Book Festival, but it would really be a thing for the whole region, and people do come from all over the region and from elsewhere.
ANNE: They are big regional draws, and Jud, I have to admit even though I’ve been a devoted reader and attended book events for a very long time, it’s only since I’ve started writing books and started getting invited to literary festivals, that was the nudge I needed to check them out for myself. I was so glad to finally discover what I had been missing for way too long. Tell me what the literary festival experience is like.
JUD: Oh, it’s dreamy. [ANNE LAUGHS] Imagine walking into an outdoor place, walking into an area where there are tents everywhere. And in each tent there’s an author speaking about his or her work, engaging in a conversation. It’s - it’s like reading books and writing books are both solitary experiences. They’re solitary endeavors, and what literary festivals do is they make this giant communal experience. If you’ve ever sorta want to feel gratified, you want to feel optimistic about the future of the written word, go to a literary festival because there … You’re going to run into tons of people just like you and you’re going to have a discussion with authors that you love and you’re going to discover new authors. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful engaging atmosphere.
ANNE: Yes. That’s absolutely my experience. Although I have to say prepare yourself for some hardships if you go for the first time because you could face the situation where you’re looking at the program and two authors you love and adore are speaking on different stages at the same time. This is the kind of dreamy wonderland we’ve created where there’s so many authors that you love that you might not even get to hear them all.
It’s really like a series of author events all happening in the same place at the same time, get to meet the authors. Even when you’re standing in line to get your book signed, you’re surrounded by people who are interested in the same thing who love books and reading. It does feel so communal and also so individual to you getting to meet the authors who wrote these books that have been so important to you. Such a great experience.
JUD: You bring up some really, really good points. In terms of scheduling, I know this from both sides because I’m a festival goer and I run a festival.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Wait. First I have to say, the struggle is real, but that is tongue in cheek. Literary festivals are an abundance of riches.
JUD: Yeah. Again, you sorta have to sometimes choose between competing priorities and sometimes I feel
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Yup.
JUD: I feel like as mayor sometimes we have an issue before us and you have to choose between competing priorities. But we have 140 authors usually each year. A lot of the programs that we do the speaking programs are panels, so there’ll be several authors in one panel. There’ll be ten or eleven different programs going on at the same time in different tents at our festival. I get complaints every year, like, why did you schedule such and such and these others at the same time? And it’s like well, we only have so much time. There’s just no avoiding that, and I feel it as a planner and I feel it as an attendee.
But you know, there are some other elements to book festivals you’ll find too like for exhibitors, you can make contact with small publishing houses or even large ones. At our festival, we have workshops for aspiring writers for all ages, for adults and for kids and for teens. We have a ton of children’s activities, performances, readings, so there’s all kinds of things going. So in a span of an eight hour period where we’re programing, we essentially have you know, 100 events. We call it one event, The Gaithersburg Book Festival, but it’s like 100 events.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Something I really like about some of the festivals I’ve been to that are regionally is that they really shine a light on local authors. It’s so wonderful to see so many authors from the Kentucky area or North Carolina area or Georgia area or Gaithersburg area all together in one place getting a spotlight that they might not otherwise have. I love how festivals do that.
JUD: Yeah, we take a lot of pride in highlighting local authors. We have to strike a balance because in order to get an audience for local authors, we have to get the attendees in, we have to have some better known draw authors as part of our lineup all different parts of the day. Make sure we have people in the door, but once - once they’re there, they’re discovering new authors, whether they’re local or not. But we do highlight a lot of local authors in the area.
ANNE: Would you tell me about a favorite moment from a past festival?
JUD: Yes! I’m sure a lot of people listening to this will remember this Jim Lehrer, the PBS news man who mod … He’s famous for moderating a lot of high stakes presidential debates and he was at our festival a few years ago. He recently passed, so this - this is sort of front to mind, I just had this memory as he passed. I think it was a month or two ago.
Jim was there, he had just started speaking to a packed tent at our festival and a train went by. Our festival’s outdoors. There’s a train track not far away, so when the trains go by, you know, everyone pauses for 30, 40 seconds while the trains go by and then the program start again. As a programmer, I find that mostly annoying but I’m glad when people find it charming. [ANNE LAUGHS]
I just happened to be there at that tent at that moment and Jim Lehrer paused while the train went by and then he sorta detoured from the presentation he was making and he talked about every time he hears a train, he remembers what it was like growing up in rural Kansas and he would go to bed at night as a kid and he could hear the trains go by and he’d just have these visions of getting on one of these trains and visiting the wider world and having adventures, and so he talked about being a train buff all his life. To me, it was such a special personal moment nobody else is getting from this really exceptional person. That was a wonderful - wonderful time for us.
ANNE: That sounds charming. I do love those moments in interviews or author events or anything I can attend where you feel like you’re getting a unique perspective, you know, a story that the author wasn’t planning on sharing, but they’re telling the crowd there because it came up. And I just love those special moments that don’t feel canned or packaged or just you had to be there.
JUD: Absolutely. So do I. You know, that’s part of what it’s all about. They’re funny ones too. [ANNE LAUGHS] I remember our first - our first festival, first big name to sign on to our book festival was Alice McDermott. She’s a many-time Pulitzer finalist, National book award winner, you know, we were just so thrilled to get Alice because when we were starting out, frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing. [LAUGHS] I have stories I can tell you about trying to recruit authors and become a festival from scratch.
But Alice was the first one. When she signed, it sorta gave us a legitimacy and then other authors started noticing, oh, Alice McDermott’s going to this festival? Okay I’ll sign on. We finally get to the festival day, this is May of 2010. I happen to be there at the moment, and Alice was speaking to the crowd at her tent. She was at the Q&A part toward the end and someone stood up and I guess they liked what she read and liked what she was talking about and some sorta older lady stands up and says, can you tell me what your name was again? [BOTH LAUGH] Oh, it just made me laugh. And Alice took it well, thank goodness, but yeah, there are all kinds of great moments.
And the other thing that you may not see behind the scenes is that authors really enjoy festivals. Even if they’re not necessarily going to have 600 people in front of them like they might if they were doing a solo event. It’s probably going to cut into their audience because people are making choices, what have you. They have a chance to network with other authors, which is sorta a rarity, and they also get a chance to meet fans and be part of the atmosphere. So I find authors really enjoy the experience of our festival and I”m sure they do at others as well.
ANNE: Yes, that’s absolutely my experience. And it’s so fun to show up in a community into an event that’s clearly an enormous team effort. You really feel like you’re a part of something special that people really care about and take pride in.
JUD: You do, and Gaithersburg’s Gaitherburg’s, it’s a really interesting place with a ton of diversity in all different ways you look at it. I feel like encouraging books, fostering generations of readers, it’s an investment in the community. You know how books give us more empathy. It’s the most immediate way you can jump into somebody else’s thinking, actions, and reasoning, and consider viewpoints other than our own, and that gives you empathy, and empathy makes you better citizens.
ANNE: I’m glad you use the word investment because that’s something as a participant that I’ve been very curious about. It amazes me how communities can invest all these resources into putting on these really incredible events and yet there are very few events at literary festivals that cost money for the participants.
ANNE: So clearly you’re investing in these things because your community values them and is willing to back that up with a lot of bucks. Would you tell me a little more about that?
JUD: In most cases, while book festivals take on the name of the city in which they take place, they’re not put on or funded by the municipality. Maybe the municipality has a grant or maybe there’s some in kind donation of venue space or something. We are unusual. I won’t say unique. I think the Brooklyn Book Festival may be - may be similar. We’re one of the unusual types where we as a city are directly involved in this. We are putting this thing together, and yeah, it’s a big investment. As far as book festival budgets go, ours is relatively low. We’re probably in the $130-$150,000 a year to put this thing on. Others go higher depending on you know, whether they’re paying for speaker fees which we can’t afford to do. You know, how fancy the hotels they’re putting the authors in. You know, how much of a marketing budget they have and whether they’re doing posters, but they are a big investment.
Getting back to how most festivals work. They’re usually put on either by a book seller or by, like, a university or a large media organization like the L.A. Times Festival of Books. So it’s unusual for a municipality to do it. I’m proud that we are. And I’m proud that my city council and staff continue to support it in the ways that they do. The real secret to our success though is our volunteer planning committee. It’s kinda like a public/private partnership.
Our planning committee does all the programming. We have volunteers who are recruiting the authors who are putting together the workshops who are doing the marketing and PR work. Our professional staff, our city staff, are doing the logistics. They’re ordering the tents and arranging for the surround system and managing the confirmation of our authors. It literally would not work if I said, hey, I have this idea for a book festival. Staff, take care of it. You guys recruit authors and put together workshops because, you know, they’re parks and rec staff. They’re not necessarily book event people. To put it into their hands would be unfair to say the least. So it’s worked because we have like two dozen people in the community who love this, who are passionate about putting on this wonderful culture opportunity.
ANNE: That is really encouraging to hear. Listeners, we’ve heard from a lot of you who’ve gotten library volunteer gigs or who now have jobs or volunteer roles with your local book selling or literary organizations. This is another thing you can seek out in your community and get involved because your community may need you to help bring good authors to town to put on amazing events. Well, Jud, thanks for giving me a little peek behind the scenes. I really appreciate that. Reading clearly must mean a lot to you if this was something that you brought to your community. I’d loved to hear a little bit about the background of your reading life.
JUD: Well, yes. Reading has meant a lot to me from as long as I can remember. So’s the creative process. I mean, one of the backstories behind the great characters and if it’s nonfiction, you know, the historical figures. I am hearing those stories. Which is why I fell in love with book festivals. But in terms of my reading life, I’ve always loved this quote from David McCullough. He said, “you read nonfiction to learn the truth about history. You read literature to learn the truth about human nature.”
I’m sorta a reading - this is sorta digression - but one of the joys of being a book festival chair is that you know, I personally try to read as many as our book festival author books as possible and that takes me out of a comfort zone. Like I’m reading adult fiction, nonfiction, and I get into teen, YA. I get into children’s books, middle grade. Just because I want to sense of who we’re hosting at the festival. It’s so rewarding. It’s so enriching to do that.
ANNE: You explicitly said that the literary festival causes you to read books that are outside of your comfort zone and yet I'm sure you have books that you have read and loved and really knew you were going to gravitate towards. How would you describe your reading taste if you had to do it in a couple sentences?
JUD: [LAUGHS] Oh my goodness. I love stories where I care about characters and that goes for fiction and nonfiction. I like books that ultimately reflect something about who I am or who we are as a country or as a people, or in my case, as a person.
ANNE: So that plus David McCullough, and we got it.
JUD: Yeah, there’s that one.
ANNE: Learn about the world, learn about human nature.
ANNE: Well, Jud, you know what we do here on What Should I Read Next.
JUD: I do.
ANNE: Are you ready to get into your books ‘cause I’m dying to hear.
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ANNE: All right. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and we’ll talk what you may enjoy reading next. How did you go about choosing these?
JUD: Depending on what the day is, I’m going to give you different choices because you know, it’s sorta a mood thing and what’s front to mind, what’s coming to mind. In this case, I chose three books that I think tell important, interesting stories of America, but reflecting who we are from very different perspectives.
JUD: The first one I’m choosing many have probably read and many more have seen the film but I would recommend reading the book anyway and that’s The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. And that came out in the late ’70s. Like Tom Wolfe is the only author I could think of I consider essential reading in both nonfiction and fiction. The Right Stuff is nonfiction. Tom Wolfe is trying to get inside the heads of pilots and astronauts who are on the literal cutting edge of human achievement and experimentation. Like Jagger who’s trying to break the sound barrier. People who were trying to go faster and fly higher and so what type of person would do this? What drives them and what capacity to overcome rational fear is necessary for these jobs. In other words, what’s right stuff?
That’s the central conceit of the book and he gets into - he gets really into the heads of these astronauts and pilots. He also gets into the heads of families like how are they dealing with it? The book reads like a novel. The characters, they jump off the page and the pages turn like at mach speed. It’s - it’s really combustible, so even if you’ve seen the film, I highly recommend reading the book The Right Stuff. It holds up. It’s just a wonderful piece of work.
ANNE: I feel like I don’t say this a lot. It usually goes the other way. I have seen the film and I haven’t read the book and the reason is that my son for school read the book and then wanted to see the film, so I was in the living room that night. Nonfiction reads like a novel about a topic I don’t know anything or know much about but is completely fascinating on the page, I love those kind of books.
JUD: Right. Right. And you’ve heard and read books by .. I look at the genre the nonfiction novel. I think the first one In Cold Blood, that’s widely regarded as the first nonfiction novel. But you know, there are modern ones like Devil in the White City and Blood of the Orange Moon. I love that genre. The Right Stuff is jaw droppingly awesome.
ANNE: Jaw droppingly awesome. Okay, that’s high praise. [JUD LAUGHS] Adding it to the list. What did you choose for your next book, Jud?
JUD: Next book is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. 1985 I think. Lonesome Dove is like a masterpiece. It’s a novel. It’s a masterpiece in storytelling and character building. It’s a western tale. Populated with characters of complexity and charm. Stories built around two old men sorta irritable, former Texas rangers set off on an ambitious cross country cattle drive. The journey which you know sometimes is like this meandering over dusty plains and sometimes like builds to a heart thumping stampede. It’s gorgeous. It’s absolutely unforgettable. Again this one was also adapted. It was a mini series. Did you see Lonesome Dove?
ANNE: I did not see Lonesome Dove, but I just read the book in the past five or six years and I didn’t think it was for me until a friend who I was really surprised to hear reading a western said oh, this is a great book. It doesn’t matter what genres you do and don’t enjoy. So yes to the book, loved it. No to the mini series. But tell me about it.
JUD: It’s another case where it was a pretty good adaptation. Great cast. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. It had, you know, Diane Lane and Steve Buscemi and lots of people that everybody loves. And it was well done, but to me you’re not as immersed as you are when you’re reading the novel and frankly I don’t know if I’ve ever cared about and fallen for characters as much as I did with Lonesome Dove. It’s like … You know, the prose is simple but it’s lyrical and its plot's well woven together. It’s just a masterpiece.
ANNE: And the reaction I hear from so many readers like me who don’t gravitate towards the western genre. I mean, I didn’t read it for a long time because my grandfather read Louis L'Amour books. He, you know, [LAUGHS] devoured them like his survival depended on it [JUD LAUGHS] and I thought I don’t read that kinda stuff so why would I read this? But I’ve heard so many readers say some version of I didn’t think I’d be like a sobbing mess over the fate of two fictional cowboys, but wow.
JUD: You know, I reluctantly admit I was reduced to the same, so. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: No shame. No shame here.
JUD: My next book Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose book Americanah is my third book, We’ve - we‘ve had a chance to host her and it was a tremendous honor.
ANNE: Ohh I wish I could have been there.
JUD: Yeah. She was great. She packed the house. People were lined up way in advanced for that talk. It was wonderful. So I loved Americanah. I wanted to pick something more recent, so both you and your readers wouldn't think I live entirely in the ‘80s and ‘70s but Americanah is like … At once, it’s a quiet love story it’s also like a beautifully articulated treatise on American society and race and the immigrant experience. And again, the sorta broader theme of these three books is telling us something about America. This is a different and I think important perspective.
It tells a story of a young Nigerian couple who emigrate. The girlfriend, Ifemelu, comes to the America, and the boyfriend goes to London. He was planning on coming to America but he gets caught up in 9/11 security and such. The book follows both of them and they make observations about their new worlds. They’re funny and sharp and poignant and to me, as I was reading this, you know what this is kinda like is like way back when Alexis de Toocqueville, people may remember he visited America like the 1830s and then came back to France and then put his observations into a book, Democracy in America. This guy spent a short time in America, captured the essence of American life culture so completely that the book became a classic, and I feel like Americanah while it’s entirely different, we have this immigrant observational genre thing going on.
In this case, Adichie is Nigerian and her perspective really comes through in the form of a blog her main character writes. She takes the story further when she brings the characters back to Nigeria and the experience of reparation like how has western life changed them and the way they see things? Anyway, it’s beautifully done. I couldn’t recommend that book enough and she’s a wonderful writer - she’s done other good stuff but that one I just thought was spectacular.
ANNE: That’s my favorite of hers as well. But I’m eagerly anticipating what I hope will be another novel coming soon.
JUD: Me too.
ANNE: She’s on the list of authors that I can’t stop talking about on What Should I Read Next and so I have to make myself not make them one of the three picks. Listeners, if you’re wondering why I don’t recommend the same books all the time it’s because I have a list that says, Anne, you’ve got to pull it back at least for another few months on these titles.
[JUD LAUGHS] That’s funny.
ANNE: Jud, now tell me about a book that’s not for you.
JUD: This is a tough question for me because it’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of books that fall short of expectations or disappoint me. That does happen. I feel like art is always to be judged selectively. You know, I don’t want to sway somebody who might like a book a lot.
ANNE: Well you’re absolutely right and the reason we ask it is because it is subjective. I mean, there is … I mean, is this a good book? And there is the question of is it my taste? And they are very different questions. And yet the truth emerges in contrast and there are more books out there than anyone can read in a hundred thousand lifetimes and you gotta narrow it down somehow. It’s not tell me about a bad book, but a book that wasn’t for you.
JUD: Thank you for liberating me here. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Just wanted to give a little bit of encouragement, but it’s an important question because it does … I find that saying what you love is great but you may not understand why until you evaluate why other books didn’t work as well for you, the reader. The individual reader.
JUD: Right. Totally agree, and thank you for that. So periodically I’ll go to the best of list and make sure I’m not missing some great piece of literature that I just didn’t … I hadn’t gotten to, and one book that I saw in a number of, like, best of the 21st century lists was The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. So I picked it up and to tell you, I didn’t connect with this. It’s like an understatement. It was a storytelling style. I found the symbolism to be paranoid and weird and I acknowledged maybe I’m not smart enough, but it just felt like it was intentionally opaque. I know it’s considered to be in the genre of post-modernist and I, you know, maybe that genre’s not for me although I have … Kurt Vonnegut’s in that genre too, and I liked a lot of stuff from Kurt Vonnegut.
ANNE: Oh, that’s interesting. Because I was wondering, knowing that The Crying of the Lot 49 is strongly satirical, I was wondering if that tone didn’t sit right with you.
JUD: I like satirical. I could think of a lot of examples of satirical that I do like, but I just … I just could not connect with it at all. I found a lot of it to be just unintelligible and again, intentionally opaque, so life is too short. I am sorta goal driven and so I do try to finish books. It’s not … I don’t often pick up a book and just drop it. So I finished it, but I didn’t love the experience.
ANNE: Okay, that’s good to know. Jud, what have you been reading lately?
JUD: I just read Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard. I give it a ten. It won the Newbery Medal … I forget how many years ago. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. Takes place in Korea in the 1100s, you know, in a town where pottery is the big trade and the main character’s a young homeless kid and he gets an apprenticeship with the master potter. Anyway. It’s just a wonderful story.
And then I read a book called Song For a Whale by Lynne Kelly. Again a middle grade book about a deaf girl who fixes radios. She - she can tell if they’re working by the vibrations and then she learns of this whale that’s out there that for whatever reason its song is at a higher pitch than other whales can understand. And so other whales ignore it and it’s - it’s just living this solitary life and she obviously sees some of herself and her inability to connect with her classmates in the whale, and she - she wants to come up with a way to communicate with the whale with her radio skills. And it's really well done and beautiful.
Right now I’m reading two books for book festival authors. One is Courting Mr Lincoln by Louis Bayard. It’s a historical fiction about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. And at this point in the book, Mary meets Abraham and at first she’s sorta underwhelmed but grows on her as Lincoln tended to do with people. [ANNE LAUGHS] At this point in time she notices that Lincoln’s got a very close relationship with his friend and roommate Joshua Speed and the question of the book is whether or not there’s more to that relationship than just friendship.
Louis Bayard is an amazing writer. He just writes beautiful sentences over … I’m like how many beautiful sentences can one person have in them? And he’s a really good researcher so I’m enjoying that book. I’m listening to that, the performance on audible is really good.
There’s another book which is a debut novelist named Elizabeth Wetmore and the book is called Valentine. It’s hard to believe this one’s a debut. It’s like this cool, gritty, hardboiled story woven around five female characters in Texas in oil country in the 1970s and it unfolds in the aftermath of a brutal assault of a teenager and how that event sorta touches each of the five characters before and after. I’m only about a third of the way into this thing but it really seems good. It’s dark but just richly rendered. It’s just … It really seems good. So hopefully the last two-thirds will hold up.
ANNE: Well that caught my eye because they’re pitching at being perfect for fans of Elizabeth Strout and Barbara Kingsolver, two authors that I adore. And also the cover’s gorgeous.
JUD: Maybe you’ll give it a shot. I’ll be curious to hear what you think.
ANNE: Now, Jud, for what you’re looking for in your reading life, more time to read, which best I [JUD LAUGHS] can do is maybe add some good books to your stack that will motivate you to read them. But we know that you got a lot going on. And you want to catch up on things you might’ve missed over the years.
JUD: Yes. Help me catch up on stuff I’ve missed over the years.
ANNE: Okay. Let’s do it. Are you ready?
JUD: I’m ready.
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ANNE: Okay. This feels like such a cliche. I know how many times did I say Lonesome Dove is a great book? Because it’s a great book not because it’s a western and lots of people who don’t enjoy westerns enjoy Lonesome Dove. However I’m really wondering if you’ve read another western The Son by Phillipp Meyer.
JUD: I have not. Tell me about it.
ANNE: First of all, I’m apologizing for recommending a book that’s very similar [LAUGHS] to a book you’ve read before. I do think this is could be a good fit if you enjoyed Lonesome Dove, and listeners, I think this could be a great fit for you too. The reason that I am hesitant to recommend another western or a western is I feel like that’s what the algorithms do really well. Like you tell them [JUD LAUGHS] you want … You enjoyed a World War II novel about two sisters and what they recommend is a bunch of other World War II novels about two sisters when what you really enjoyed about the book was the way it probed human nature in a really interesting way. Which you could do with a western or a dystopian novel or maybe even a middle grade novel.
So that aside, let’s go for the western. You have mentioned Texas novels and this is a great Texas novel. And while I don’t think this is a reason to recommend it, I did notice that one of your favorite guiding quotes is from David McCoullogh. The Son follows six generations of a fictional and presumably McCoullogh family in Texas. [JUD LAUGHS] So we’re just gonna go with that.
ANNE: Like your three favorites this is about a family that comes to this land and like the characters at Lonesome Dove, like the characters of Right Stuff, like the characters of Americanah, they are navigating unfamiliar terrain and it’s hard and they are changed as a result. This is a story that some readers just find too violent to read so there’s a trigger alert for that. But what I like about this for you is it spans two hundred years, six generations of a family. I can see that you like these sweeping stories that take a long view of people’s life.
But more than being a story of a family, this is a story about what it means to be human and what it means to fight for survival and what it means to be a person of courage. And what it means when you fall short of that. It’s a story of human nature and Meyer sets the tone for that very early in the book. The epigraph he chooses is from Edward Gibbon and it says, “fortune … buries empires and thieves in a common grave.”
JUD: Oh, I like that.
ANNE: For a book that answers a reader’s question like who am I? And then who are we collectively? I think this is could be a really interesting, engaging way in.
JUD: I think it sounds great. Certainly as the mayor of a city, I’m not looking forward to knowing, you know, what grave we’re all going into. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: We could call it a cautionary tale.
JUD: [LAUGHS] But no, it sounds great. Yes, I’m going to put that on the list.
ANNE: That’s a long one, so I’ll see if I can not load you up with tons of long, long books, so you can get your reading time in. Jud, this was really popular for awhile. Readers are continuing to read it now but have you read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini?
JUD: Yes I have and I really liked it.
ANNE: Okay. Okay, good, good, good. That’s what I wanted to know. I also liked how that one spans many man years and is about making choices that we are okay with. Also making choices that aren’t for each other, so that’s what I was thinking about there. How about Zadie Smith? Have you read anything by her?
JUD: No I haven’t, and I’d liked to.
ANNE: Okay. I thought of her book White Teeth based on the book she really enjoyed, but then I was wondering about The Crying of Lot 49, which is satirical and so is White Teeth, so I thought I don’t know. Is this going to work out? But if you’re okay with that then I think it could be a good pick for you.
JUD: I am okay with it.
ANNE: Okay. Well first of all, incredibly, this is her debut ‘cause you’ve said that you’ve read some debuts recently that make you think how are they doing this for the first time? This is her debut. It’s witty. Funny, although it definitely has an edge. It’s set during the last half of the 20th century. What we have here is three families whose lives become intertwined in really interesting thought provoking ways.
You mentioned that you really like phrasing of Courting Mr. Lincoln, how the author just keeps on turning out just like really well written sentences and I think you’ll find that here. Zadie Smith really has a way with words, and while this book isn’t plot heavy, she does manage to address many, many topics in a way that’s really thoughtful and engaging without feeling like you’re sitting in a college lecture.
JUD: Sounds good.
ANNE: That’s White Teeth, Zadie Smith. And finally for a Gaithersburg author, I’m wondering about choosing the nonfiction novel, The Furious Hours by Casey Cep.
JUD: Ahh. I have read it. I really thought it was exceptional work, and I think that’s a debut as well. I think that was Casey’s first book. I know she’s done pieces for New Yorker, but that’s a really good book. I’d recommend it too.
ANNE: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Well I’m glad I’m thinking in the right direction. [JUD LAUGHS] I’m going to take back everything I said about short books. So I’m thinking about The Brothers K by David Jams Duncan. Is that a book you know anything about?
JUD: No, tell me about it.
ANNE: Ah, it’s really long. 645 pages which to some readers is like ah yes, I won’t have to decide what to read next for days, maybe even weeks. And to some readers it’s like ugh, it’s going to take me forever to cross another book off my list, but I’m glad you have patience ‘cause I think this book is worth it. This is a book that is ostensibly about baseball, but like all the books we discussed it’s about so much more than that. It’s about a family going through really hard things that seem disconnected at first but the author brings it all together in such a beautiful and poignant way. It’s also about the Vietnam War and Seventh Day Adventism, abusive relationships. He turns it into a story that is incredible and heart wrenching, that spans many, many years and runs around the world a little bit.
It’s set in the pacific northwest but I think the thing that’s truly remarkable about this book is that it shows the family members going through incredibly low moments. I mean you see them suffer, and yet he’s able to show how there is deep joy present even there and that takes a remarkable talent for an author to be able to do that, and it’s a really powerful reading experience. How does that sound to you?
JUD: That sounds wonderful, and actually I’m kinda enjoying your struggle with trying to describe and capture what the book is about because I have this issue with virtually all really good novels and the point … The reason why I think we have trouble with is because really good literature is about everything. There can be a plot line but it’s like all of life is sorta contained in that thing, and it’s hard to capture. Of course you couldn’t really recommend books and just say, oh this is a great book. It’s about everything. [ANNE LAUGHS] Who’s going to read that? I find that it’s actually within those pages there’s a whole world, there’s all of life within those pages.
ANNE: That’s such a great way to put it and now I’m going to ask you a hard question. So, of the three books we talked about today, The Son by Phillipp Meyer, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and The Brothers K by David James Duncan, of those three books what do you think you’ll read next?
JUD: Okay I can’t punt and say it’s gonna be your book next. [BOTH LAUGH] Maybe the last one, maybe The Brothers K. When I’m in front of the computer and ready to make a purchase or go to the library and borrow something, it’s gonna depend on my mood at the time.
ANNE: It’s good to have a working reading plan, and yet I am completely on board with it depends on what I feel like when it’s time to read again plan. Jud, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
JUD: It’s been an honor. You can learn everything about the Gaithersburg Book Festival at our website, GaithersburgBookFestival.org. Even if you’re far away, we’d love to have you.
ANNE: Thanks so much, Jud.
JUD: You bet.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Jud, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/232 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can follow Jud on Instagram @jud.ashman, and check out the Gaithersburg Book Festival’s upcoming digital programming at gaithersburgbookfestival.org.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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● Author Jim Lehrer (try No Certain Rest)
● Author Alice McDermott (try The Ninth Hour)
♥ The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
● In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
● The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
♥ Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
♥ Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
▵ The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
● A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
● Song For a Whale by Lynn Kelly
● Courting Mr Lincoln by Louis Bayard
● Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
● The Son by Philipp Meyer
● The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
● White Teeth by Zadie Smith
● The Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
● The Brothers K by David James Duncan
What do YOU think Jud should read next?