WSIRN Ep 254: A plethora of political(ish) book recs

WSIRN Ep 254: A plethora of political(ish) book recs

Readers, the holidays are fast approaching and around here we’re of the opinion books make the perfect gift, whether you’re shopping for friends, family, coworkers, or teachers. But choosing the right title can be tough, so it’s become a tradition on WSIRN to have a special guest join me on the show to help us match YOUR loved one with the perfect readerly gift. Check out this post to learn how to participate in this year’s holiday gifting episode!

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Today I’m talking with two friends and fellow Kentuckians, Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers. You might recognize their voices from the podcast Pantsuit Politics, where they come together to practice curiosity and grace-filled conversations about politics, the news, and other things that help us live in community together. 

All three of us enjoy reading to learn, and to understand different perspectives and new worlds—but our reading tastes vary widely. Today we’re coming together to discuss fiction and nonfiction recommendations that have shaped our understanding of politics, history, and what it means to be a human in this world. We’re each sharing books we personally love and often recommend, because they are fascinating, thought-provoking, and sometimes surprisingly page-turning. Sarah and Beth added several titles to my own To Be Read list, including a 30 hour book that will certainly help me get the most out of my next audiobook credit. 

We’ve got some excellent recommendations for you today, readers. Let’s get to it!

What Should I Read Next #254: A plethora of political(ish) book recs with Pantsuit Politics

Learn more about Pantsuit Politics podcast on their website, and follow Sarah, Beth, and the show on Twitter.


ANNE: I really got a kick out of revisiting the episode title you gave the one we did together in Cincinnati called Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Anne Bogel. Three names that will never appear together ever again. [ALL LAUGH]

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 254. 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, the holidays are fast approaching and around here we’re of the opinion books make the perfect gift. Whether you’re shopping for friends, family, coworkers, teachers, whomever. But choosing the right title can be tough, so it’s become a tradition on What Should I Read Next to have a special guest join me on the show to help us match your loved ones with the perfect readerly gifts.

If you want our help building your bookish shopping list, there are two ways to participate. One, leave me a voicemail from your phone or computer at Speakpipe.com/whatshouldireadnext. That’s Speakpipe, one word, dot com/whatshouldireadnext. Just share who you’d like a gift recommendation for, a couple books they loved, a book or genre you know they don’t like, and any little details you think are useful. Please make sure to keep your message under one minute.

You can also email our producer Brenna at Brenna at modernmrsdarcy.com with the same details. Who your giftee, their favorites, their least favorites and whatever else you think would be helpful. We’ll squeeze as many submissions as we can into the upcoming holiday episode and hook you up with perfect bookish gifts.

Again, that’s Speakpipe.com/whatshouldireadnext or email Brenna at B-R-E-N-N-A at modernmrsdarcy.com

Today I’m talking with two friends and also fellow Kentuckians, Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers. You might recognize their voices from the podcast Pantsuit Politics where they come together each week to practice curiosity and graceful conversations about politics, the news, and other things that help us live in community together.

All three of us enjoy reading to learn and to understand different perspectives and new worlds, but our reading tastes vary widely. Today we’re coming together to discuss fiction and nonfiction recommendations that have shaped our understanding of politics, history, and what it means to be a human in this world. We’re each sharing books we personally love and often recommend because they’re fascinating, thought provoking, and sometimes surprisingly page turning. Sarah and Beth added several titles to my own to be read list as they often do, including a 30 hour book that will certainly help me get the most out of my next audiobook credit. We’ve got some excellent recommendations for you today, readers. Let’s get to it.

Beth and Sarah, welcome to the show.

[00:02:47]

SARAH: Thank you so much for having us.

BETH: Thank you for having us.

ANNE: Well it’s a pleasure to talk books with you today. Sarah, this is actually a repeat appearance for you.

SARAH: I know.

ANNE: And I did a little walk down memory lane this morning, when did you think that was in time?

SARAH: I looked it up to make sure I didn’t pick the same book twice. It was like several, several years ago. Wasn’t it like 2017? ’15? It was a while.

ANNE: Yeah, it was 2016.

[00:03:12]

SARAH: Wow.

ANNE: So it was episode 43 —

SARAH: And I had FOMO and we talked about it, and I felt like you gave me excellent advice of which I’ve marginally applied successfully. [BOTH LAUGH]

BETH: I liked how you talk to Sarah in election years. I think that’s the pattern.

SARAH: Yeah, right?!

ANNE: Okay, we are going to talk about the election today a little bit. [SARAH AND BETH LAUGH] But that is not what we talked about in 2016. I don’t think.

SARAH: No, it was about the fact that I get FOMO and like I feel pressured to read sorta the award winners and so I’m just following a pattern of recommendation that has no structure to it. I have gained more structure to the books I read and like purposefully reading not just the latest trendiest fiction.

ANNE: Oh, that’s interesting. You know I was looking back at the books we discussed and I gotta say four years later I would not have recommended one of the books I recommended to you in that episode.

SARAH: Really? Which one? Which one?

ANNE: Oh, do I want to say it out loud? I don’t know. Maybe readers should just go look.

SARAH: Yes.

ANNE: Hillbilly Elegy. I would not recommend that today.

SARAH: Oh, right. Right. There’s better. I think the easiest thing to say is if that’s what you’re looking for, there are better options now.

ANNE: It’s a different literary landscape now.

SARAH: Mm-hm, mm-hm, mm-hm.

[00:04:18]

ANNE: So I remember talking about curing Hamilton hangover, also I refer back to your episode all the time because you talk about how you love to learn and when it comes to choosing your books and seeing what appeals to you, you’re just a very thirsty sponge who likes to absorb all the information. And that’s not how everyone reads, but it’s how many readers do approach their reading lives and it’s great to be able to refer to them that episode so they can feel like they are with a kindred spirit.

SARAH: Love it.

ANNE: Okay, so Beth, this is your first appearance on the podcast. Thank you for joining us.

BETH: I’m so happy to be here. Two of my favorite people in one place.

ANNE: Aww. That’s so nice. And three Kentucky girls, which has never happened on What Should I Read Next and will probably never happen again. Many listeners know your voices from your own podcast and then the Daily News briefs you do on Instagram, so if you’re listening and you’re thinking, I know these voices, I’m sure that’s why. Something else I’ve forgotten about that the Google helped remind me of is I have been on your show annually since 2017. I did not remember that it had been that long, but I really got a kick out of revisiting the episode title you gave the one we did together in Cincinnati called Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Anne Bogel. Three names that will never appear together ever again. [BETH AND SARAH LAUGH]

BETH: That’s really fun. I love that.

ANNE: You probably came up with it, so I’m glad it’s striking you in a good way all this time.

SARAH: I love it so much. [BETH LAUGHS] It was perfect.

BETH: We try to be very direct with our episode titles, we’re not imaginative about it. Just this is what you’re coming for, ladies and gentlemen.

SARAH: I know, those people who like pun every title.

ANNE: We find that to be one of the hardest parts of podcasting, and we as our internal team, who our show comes out on Tuesday, every Friday afternoon we’re like okay, guys, what are we going to call it?

[00:05:57]

SARAH: It’s hard.

ANNE: ‘Cause direct is good. We never want to be misleading, but also we don’t want to sound terribly boring either.

BETH: Yeah, we just lean hard into the terribly boring. We figure if you’re rolling in for a news and politics discussion, you want to understand what that’s discussion going to be about so it’s just kinda the bullet points and it removes that pressure to be creative on our end.

ANNE: Our favorite thing to do, and I think the thing we do most often is take a direct quote out of our guest’s mouth, or sometimes mine, but then sometimes the quote we want to use is 30 words long and that doesn’t fit in your little iTunes preview.

SARAH: Yeah.

BETH: Well now I feel all this pressure to be pithy.

SARAH: Haha. Quotable.

ANNE: So for those of us who don’t know, tell us a little about the show because we’re going to connect this with your reading lives in just a moment.

BETH: Pantsuit Politics is our attempt to create what we could not find for ourselves around news and politics. Sarah and I both, from different lenses, come to politics with a lot of interest. I’ve always been kinda addicted to news, and Sarah is more of a lifelong political analyst and observer and participant, and probably those differences reflect in our reading lives as well. But we came together to have discussions where we’re not trying to pair it party talking points. We’re not trying to debate. We’re just trying to be curious. People who learn more about themselves and the world through discussing the things that are very important to how we live together in community, and so that’s what we try to model two times a week every week.

And I think that probably our why has shifted a little bit from the beginning but not much because I do think we came into this thinking how can I learn more about people of other views. The opportunity to hear from people from all kinds of views now, our audience has grown and we’ve gotten to know our audience well, almost five years later, I spend a lot of my reading time just with those listener messages really helping to understand how the things we talk about on the show are playing out in people’s lives and it’s just incredibly enriching work even when the idea of anything political feels fraught and overwhelming for us, it remains grace filled in a really beautiful part of our lives.

[00:08:04]

ANNE: Well I love how you said you spend a lot of your reading time reading messages from listeners ‘cause sometimes I talk to readers who say like, oh my gosh, I feel so guilty or so unintelligent. I haven’t read anything in so long, and I’m thinking, oh, I bet you did. It’s just not book length forms. Because Beth, I’m sure you read a ton like case law, articles, many, many emails, but I don’t know about your book reading life. We - we don’t talk about books. Tell me a little bit about that.

BETH: My book reading life is often to enhance the preparation I’m doing for the show. I love research and so I have really folded in my book reading life to the research that I do for the show and you’ll hear that in some of the books I want to talk to you about. And currently you know, I’m reading a book about how to reform the healthcare system that I hope we can talk about on the show at some point.

So I read mostly nonfiction and I really try to lean into books that are saying here’s an existing problem and we’re talking it to death on terms that do not matter. And I want to talk to you on terms that do matter and kinda reinvent the questions presented about this problem, so that we can imagine some new solutions to those questions. So really forward thinking nonfiction from people with niche expertise about topics that come up all the time in political conversation would be how I describe my reading life. I would say I love to learn about problem solving.

ANNE: Ooh.

BETH: So I don’t love historical books as much as Sarah does. I’m interested in history, but I am much more interested in that future oriented approach where is this issue going and how can we tackle it as it goes there?

ANNE: How do you find the books you chose to read?

BETH: Well I’m very fortunate that people send us lots of books, so I don’t have to look very hard. But I also read a ton of longform articles and that’s where I end up seeing like a thinker who’s cited frequently and I feel like I want to know more about what this person has to say and I follow those threads to recommendations.

ANNE: I read a quip a decade ago that has turned out to be oddly prescient and true for my reading life and that is once you’ve written one of those long form pieces in The Atlantic, you’ve written 40 or 50 pages of your book, I mean some of those 10, 12, 13,000 words long so you might as well go on and finish it and put it between covers and it’s very true that many of the books that I enjoy reading in nonfiction space did begin as longform articles of news magazines.

[00:10:30]

BETH: Well and that’s why I don’t think we should shame ourselves if we are reading more longform articles than books because we’re reading the beginning of someone’s book or a summary of someone’s book very often and able to take in some really good information and thinking that way.

ANNE: Sarah, we do talk books sometimes. But I’m pretty sure the last book we discussed was Beach Read by Emily Henry.

SARHA: Yeah.

ANNE: Not nonfiction. Not about learning. Not about politics.

SARAH: Yeah, you know my fiction flows a lot from your recommendations. I usually take your Summer Reading Guide and just go through, figure out which ones I like, and just fill out my whole list and read them as they come in. I would say that approximately 75% of the fiction I read comes from your recommendations.

ANNE: Oh, I’m not sure whether to feel flattered or terrified.

SARAH: You should feel flattered. [ANNE LAUGHS] Because also you should … you don’t even need to worry because you know if I don’t like it, I’ll tell you. I’ll be like I like that one, Anne. I was not a fan of that one.

ANNE: I mean that’s okay though. I think people are sometimes hesitant to say that book didn’t work for me and I want to hear about it and I want to hear why. That’s the beginning of a really interesting conversation. So okay, so we talked about how you love to learn but you’re looking for something else in much of the fiction you pick up and maybe the nonfiction as well. Tell me about that.

SARAH: Well I think for me fiction in particular is a chance to get out of my own head because you know what, it’s a little intense in there and so I really need a break. I need to feel like I can go somewhere else for a little while. Listen, especially because we work in politics and right now is an intense time and so, oh my God, that’s why Beach Read felt like a gift from the heavens ‘cause I was like ah, yeah, I want to be … Well I want to be on that bookshelf, but that’s probably a little too racy for your podcast, but [ANNE LAUGHS] [SARAH CLEARS HER THROAT] Good Lord that scene.

And so I just don’t read a lot of light fiction I should say. Like it doesn’t need to be I’m going somewhere light and breezy with no real conflict and issues. I really like intense fiction. I really like literary fiction. I do not need a happy ending. I do not need a romance. I mean I think probably the most important thing for me in fiction which is what keeps me out of my own head and engaged in the book is like I really like if I don’t see where it’s going. I think that’s my probably biggest sorta turnoff as a book, if I can see wheels turning and see where they’re taking us, I really don’t dig that experience. I want to go different places, I want to live in different countries, I want to see what it’s like to be other people so that’s why I love fiction and that’s why I really, it’s really important to straight up my mental health.

Nonfiction, I do love history. I think I want to understand in-depth how we got here, what it was like previously. I mean I think in a way in doing what I do with fiction only in a different way with nonfiction especially history like I want to go, I want to be immersed in this problem but like not as me. You know what I'm saying? Like if we’re in the middle of a racial reckoning, I want to understand that humans and Americans have been struggling with this and I want to feel as much as I can and understand what it was like when they were reckoning with this in 1770 or 1870 or 1920, like I think that to me is very helpful and it gives me some orientation in the space, so I read a lot of history books. I read a lot of sorta sociological studies.

I’m really interested in culture and like sorta bigger trends and how we handle things … I think the last book we … Yeah, this was probably before Beach Read. I mean one of the last reads we talked about Can’t Even: How Millennials Became A Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson ‘cause you read it, and I was like I’ve been, I mean, I’ve been such a fan of Anne’s. I’ve been reading her writing on the Internet for over ten years. And I was so excited about this book and then I was like oh right, I can get an advanced copy like Anne. So I did. [ANNE LAUGHS] And I read it in like a day. I mean I will get in a nonfiction book and I’ll read them like they’re mysteries. Like if they’re really good, I don’t put them down and I’m like flying through them ‘cause I think I’m so consumed with the perspective and sorta the deep dive into the subject matter, so it’s not sorta out of ordinary for me to treat a nonfiction book like a fiction book where I’m like oh my gosh. Not like what’s going to happen, but I’m consumed by it.

[00:14:32]

ANNE: Reading nonfiction like mysteries. Okay, so I hadn’t thought to put it like that when we were talking about a book like Can’t Even, which is … What’s the subtitle? How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation? Is that right?

SARAH: Yeah. Mm-hm, mm-hm.

[00:14:43]

ANNE: Okay. So we’re talking about sociology and cultural trends. We’re not talking about … This isn’t like a narrative nonfiction like true crime or whodunit story by any means, but I do feel like it’s like a mystery. That really resonates because I’m reading it like okay, I’ve experienced these things but I have no idea why it’s that way and I feel like she’s telling me. I like that description. How do you find those nonfiction books? How do you decide what to read next?

SARAH: I would say a lot of them are personal recommendations from readers. A lot are some of the stuff we get sent. A lot of it is just subject matters. I just really want to understand more in-depth or that I’m trying to piece together because we’re going to do a series on it or because I just want to understand it in a deeper way. Like I want to be able to think through it more clearly, so it’s driven by the show, driven by recommendations, driven by my own sorta personal explorations. I’m reading Far From the Tree and probably will be reading Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon for the next like I don’t know, eighteen months.

ANNE: Oh! By Andrew Solomon.

SARAH: Yes.

ANNE: Oh, I don’t know what that is. I thought you were talking about the Robin Benway novel, which I was about to tell you I love.

SARAH: Yes, I read that one. I think either on your recommendation or because I thought it was the Andrew Solomon one. I found the Andrew Solomon one from an Atlantic long read that was about a woman whose daughter had a chronic condition and she quotes him and she … It’s this amazing quote about how children with chronic or fatal conditions force us to confront this idea that children are our chance at immortality. And that we’re really trying to replicate ourselves and like this instinctual psychological thing that we do with our kids. He tackles that through many different perspectives in the Deaf community and the Down Syndrome community, with people whose children are criminals, whose people who had children as a product of rape, and that sorta horizontal identity when our children are very different from us.

And I have a child with a disability and I wanted to think through that more clearly and more in-depth and sorta confront some of those things, and so I picked it up, but it is 800 pages. Every little section is basically a book. I think is the best way … I mean, it’s the size of a phone book. Two phone books depending on where you live. And so I’m going through it very slowly with a friend of mine. We’re just kinda taking each section at one at a time but it’s so brilliantly written, but it’s very intense. Because you know this is an intense subject matter in my personal life that I really wanted to take some time with, and so that’s … I chose a book to do that.

[00:17:05]

ANNE: Now we are on the cusp of another presidential election. Can I just say … Can this be the confessional? I used to love presidential election years so much. It was endlessly fascinating to me to watch this vast field of candidates slowly get windowed down to the two final contenders, and the joy has been lost in that for the last few cycles. [SARAH LAUGHS] But I also love to read to understand things, to learn more, to understand different perspectives and new worlds, and this is the time of year when many readers feel the same way and they’re interested in reading books maybe that don’t address political beliefs or party ideology but that do touch on or relate to politics in some way and so today we get to share a handful of our favorite political books and I gotta know, like was it hard for y’all to choose these? Beth, was it hard for you to narrow it down? ‘Cause I’m sure you read boatloads.

BETH: Yes, for sure. It was very hard to narrow it down. and I … as I answered your question about kinda the book I liked to read, I feel pretty happy with my choices but I will also say I love that description of nonfiction as mystery that I’m going to be thinking about for awhile and it brought a number of other books in mind for me, so it is difficult. There is so much good writing beyond I’m running for office, here’s my biography, and I’m afraid that’s what hits most people radar this time of year, so I’m excited to talk about other things.

SARAH: Don’t read those. Those ones are terrible.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Sarah, when you came to speak at my church you defined politics in a way that I hadn’t thought quite before. I think you said like politics is how we figure out how to live together in community, which is the topic of so many books. Not just biographies, memoirs, and histories.

SARAH: Well first of all I stole that definition from Beth.

ANNE: It was good, Beth. It was good. It sounded good coming out of her mouth too.

SARAH: You know I’m looking around at so many things right now including thoughts and ideas that we’re exploring, and it feels like there is a real breakthrough, manifestation coming to the surface of what are we doing? What is community? How are we doing this? Like this really pushed beyond the individualistic perspective that I love so much, and I think you’re seeing it in a lot of books right now for sure.

[00:19:15]

BETH: Because politics should be connective. [SARAH AGREES] I think the reason the joy is lost that you were describing and you are not alone in the number of people who used to find the presidential race fascinating and have come to find it exhausting at best, is because it’s so disconnective. We’re participating in politics as if the point is to be adversarial, and so I love this writing that reminds us that actually it is connective process and it’s one that we all have to create together. There is something creative about voting and there’s really good writing that helps you think through that exercise.

ANNE: I gotta say the books I chose to talk about, they’re not all about bringing people together. [SARAH LAUGHS] Sarah, was it hard for you to choose?

SARAH: Oh my gosh, yes. I hate choosing. I hate choosing anything. When people are like choose your favorite book, your favorite film, your favorite TV show, like I’m going to have to need at least three to five, thank you please. [ANNE LAUGHS] I just … That’s my personality. I find it impossible to choose and narrow down.

ANNE: Superlatives are tough.

SARAH: They’re so hard!

ANNE: And well I have to say on the show every week we don’t ever ask people for their three most favorite books or the best or the … it just happens to be three favorites. You could have like three thousand favorites but just tell us three of them. Any three of them today.

SARAH: That’s very helpful framing.

ANNE: Yes, that’s my coping strategy. Just embedded in the structure of the show.

***

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***

ANNE: All right, so, here’s what we get to talk about today. We each are sharing not necessarily three books we love as we so often do on the show, although maybe you do. Please tell us. But three books that incorporate politics in an important way, that have been personally meaningful to you. Beth, why don’t you go first? What did you choose?

[00:23:01]

BETH: So my first book to recommend is The New Rules of War by Sean McFate, and I am recommending this book because when you just look at the cover of it, it is not an inviting book. I am certain I am not the target demographic [SARAH LAUGHS] for the book the way it’s designed and packaged. It has a very militaristic look to go along with the subject matter. It is fascinating. So Sarah and I have shared before on our show that we both did future problem solving in high school where you get a future scenario and you go through and identify all the problems you see and then pick the worst problem and start looking at solutions, and this book feels like to me back in the future problem solving room because Sean McFate just demonstrates so skillfully how all the conversations we have about the military and our engagement with other countries are stuck in World War II. It’s like the rest of the world has completely reframed global conflict and we are still talking as though we’re sorta in the trenches. It’s just really fascinating fast paced look at how we should be talking about our military and how we should be equipping our military and what would actually make sense for the United States as a player on the world stage, and I just couldn’t read it fast enough or stop thinking about it after we read it.

ANNE: Will actually read this because I think he heard about it from you all probably on your podcast but he could not stop talking about it. And the things that he was talking about like armies for hire after reading it were just not the kind of things I thought would be even within the scope of the book because I don’t know the new rules of war. It just never occurred to me that he’d be reading about some of the things that Sean McFate covers.

BETH: I think if you enjoy, like, television shows like 24, this is the perfect book for you because it tells you in the real world here are these layers and layers of activity happening and what really matters to super wealthy people who have capacity to create essentially private armies. It’s just, it is transporting from everyday life experience and it also makes so much sense that it’s kinda motivating, you know. You start to think about I want to elect people who think like this and who know this and who have access to this kind of language and these kinds of ideas.

ANNE: That sounds really interesting. Also I noted right off you said the first book I’d like to recommend. I like it. It’s bold.

BETH: I want lots of people to read this book because I think we need a massive perspective shift around what we ask people to do when we ask them to defend our country and this really shows that like being stuck in World War II is unfair to our military families.

[00:25:40]

ANNE: Well that sounds fascinating. Sarah, what did you choose for your first book?

SARAH: Well back to my obsession with history [ANNE LAUGHS] I would like to choose These Truths by Jill Lepore.

ANNE: Also like your obsession with 900 page books apparently.

SARAH: Yeah, I do usually take on one a year. Like and I think I probably learned that from your reading challenge. Like I feel like for a couple years you had one that was like read one that’s over 500 pages. Did I make that up?

ANNE: No, that’s a real thing.

SARAH: Yeah, so I do try to do that, and you know one year I’m going to in a minute recommend a book by Ibram X. Kendi, but it’s a shorter one. I read his longer one year, Stamped From the Very Beginning, which is a pretty comprehensive history book as well, but These Truths by Jill Lepore, you know, it kinda reminds me of the People’s History of the United States. It’s just this amazing walk through American history that it’s not like it flips the script, it really just you know rotates you a couple degrees and then all of a sudden you feel like you’re in a totally different landscape. It’s not extreme or revolutionary or anything, she’s just sharing stories and perspectives, events, and facts obviously that add a layer of complexity to I think historical narratives that just they get so simplified and they get so Disneyified, you know, you got a good guy and you got a bad guy and that’s what it was, and she just rolls in there I think she, Jill Lepore is brilliant, is a great writer, has a fascinating way in which she really pushes us to think about history in new and interesting ways. I felt like I highlighted half the book. There was definitely a time on our show where I was mentioning this book every episode if not every other episode. [LAUGHS] Just because …

BETH: It was a long while.

SARAH: It was a long time. [BETH LAUGHS] Because that’s what happens when I read these long ones in particular. They just get in my head, I talk about them all the time. But I just thought she’s brilliant and I think she just does such a good job of doing what Howard Zinn and Ibram X. Kendi does as well which is say you think you know the story but you don’t know the story. Like you just .... it’s not that simple and it never was. There are bigger forces are play and I think history is so powerful because we, you know, we can look back with 20/20 vision and see these forces at play and when you can see them at play in history, I do think you build a muscle and get better at seeing them at play right now in the times we’re currently living.

[00:28:06]

ANNE: Yeah.

BETH: I have the audiobook of These Truths I would just like to mention because I don’t want to sit and read a history book, but I do find the way that Jill Lepore described these events to be really fascinating and that is a wonderful way. If you look at this book and are intimidated by it, it’s a wonderful way to get into it. To just pop the headphones in and she narrates it. You can hear her passion for the subject matter come through and it’s really nice.

ANNE: So if you want to get the absolute most listening per penny out of your audiobook purchase, this is the way to do it. [BETH AND SARAH LAUGH] It’s like 30 hours.

BETH: It’s so true. [LAUGHS]

SARAH: So true.

ANNE: Okay. So I brought the fiction today. Well not all fiction, but I brought fiction. However, talking about the importance of history and understanding it and understanding what it means for today, y’all just right off the bat, I have to tell you I cheated. I got two books, but let me tell you why. The first is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I love her. I aspire to be a Doris Kearns Goodwin completist. I am not there yet but I will get there. I have talked about this book a lot on the show. I’m imagining, Sarah, for the same reasons you’re reading Jill Lepore, you can’t stop talking about it, when you’re reading a book that suddenly changes your understanding or sometimes drastically changes your understanding of something you thought you knew or that you’ve known for a long time, it gets in your head and I feel like your brain needs to synthesize what its learning and what it means for you and your past and everyone’s collective future.

But I want to talk about this particular book because it’s come to be so relevant to me right now in my understanding of the world and the way I’m seeing it. This is a massive book. It’s 800, 900 pages, and I gotta say, the first 150 pages or so went so slow for me ‘cause she’s setting out all the characters. Many of them are not people that are extremely important in the long view context. Like there’s so many pages about Salmon P. Chase, who was very important of the day but I’m just like let’s just get to Lincoln. Come on. [SARAH LAUGHS] But once the story, the true story gets going, it really gets going and I just had no idea how much I did not know about Lincoln and the Civil War. I think what so often happens is we learn that history in high school and college and we’re done and except for the popular books we read or the occasional article, we stay with the understanding that was formed when we were relatively young and our little brains were not fully developed. At least that’s where I was.

But reading this book gave me such a deeper and richer appreciation of the near miraculous Lincoln administration and the way it came together which is so improbable and just the unspeakable tragedy of his assassination. And until I read this book, I did not fully understand not just the reason was a tragedy for our nation at the time and of course for the man himself, but I didn’t grasp what we as a country had lost, which feels especially relevant right now today because 150+ years later we are still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War and how terribly reconstruction was handled when Lincoln was assassinated. And we don’t know if it would just be ah, mission accomplished. Problem solved. You know, let’s all go skipping off into our United States future, but it could not have been worse had he continued in office.

The reason I chose that Goodwin book is because another one I recently read but I mean, to let me define words, recently I read this popular narrative nonfiction work that I’ve been meaning to read forever by Candice Millard and this one’s about the Garfield administration. It’s called Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, and my dad was a massive history buff and when I mentioned him that I was reading this book, he was like ugh, 1881, our second shot at getting civil rights if not right, it was such a goal of Garfield’s administration to improve civil rights and in his inaugural address, he spoke eloquently about how he wanted liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof. It was incredibly important to him, a huge goal of his administration. When he was assassinated, it was a huge blow to civil rights. He was strongly against the Jim Crow laws. His successor Arthur was a big proponent of them. Now at this moment of time, thinking about those administrations that bracketed reconstruction and how it could have been so different is especially poignant right now.

[00:32:24]

SARAH: Yeah I think that way about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. I think it was a real sliding door moment in our country’s history and I think, you know, when I read history books ... I think we talked about Team of Rivals last time I was on, I adore that book. I had the honor of watching her come with President Obama in the United States Capitol and celebrate the anniversary of Lincoln’s presidency. I think it was his presidency or his birthday, I don’t know. It was a big Lincoln anniversary and it was hilarious to watch these senators crowd around her like groupies. Like she is [ANNE LAUGHS] totally adored.

[00:32:57]

ANNE: Oh, that image brings me joy.

SARAH: Yeah, it was awesome. I mean, I definitely agree with the assassination. I literally read it in the car and was like weeping. My husband was like, what is wrong with you? You knew the ending of this book, and I was like you don’t understand!

ANNE: No, I never expected to feel that way.

SARAH: It could have been different.

ANNE: Yeah.

SARAH: You know, the reason I think about Lincoln a lot partly because people like to bring his name up but I think the central thesis of that book, that his strongest political trait was his empathy, is so powerful, was powerful then, is … You know, honestly I think particularly in the time in which he lived, even more incredible that was his gift, but it was important then. It’s important now, and I think we can see what happens when there’s a lack of empathy in our political discourse in leadership, but I think those sliding door moment is where we can think is this paradox that they make me feel when I read about them, we still aim that way and even though we get set back, we still aim that way. The pull toward justice is so strong and also paradoxically so fragile. You know, these sliding doors when a leader’s assassinated or a deal is struck or you know, not to keep the Hamilton references flowing, but like in the room it happened and everything in Hamilton’s life you can see so many moments like that it makes me feel so profoundly that like I believe that we are on march that is not inevitable but powerful in a powerful force in our lives and also that the path to get us there is winding and so fragile.

BETH: So I met Doris Kearns Goodwin in Green Room and also was struggling to not be annoying fan girl [ANNE LAUGHS] because I think she’s amazing, and I want you to know that she is exactly what you might imagine her to be, privately, like so lovely, so warm. But that same day I met Jared Cohen who wrote the book Accidental Presidents, so as you’re talking about assassination and these sliding door moments, that book is a really nice followup to this conversation because he writes about the eight people who became the president without being elected to that office and the circumstances of their governing and just how precarious and strong at the same time all of our structures are when moments like that arise.

[00:35:11]

ANNE: I didn’t know about that book. That sounds fascinating.

BETH: It’s really good. It does … it also has that nonfiction mystery feel which is a phrase I’m going to be using all the time.

ANNE: I know, I know, Sarah, that’s my new favorite. [SARAH LAUGHS] All right. Beth, tell us what to read next. What’s your second book?

BETH: Yes, so the second book I thought I might talk about today is Primary Colors which is very near and dear to my heart. It’s a book that I have loved since I was in high school. I read my paperback copy so many times that it is falling apart. In high school I loved to read in the bathtub and so this book has been through it, but I have always loved this book. It’s a fictionalized account of the campaign of Bill Clinton in just the primary process. I think what makes me continue to come back to this book is the way the characters are so almost comically flawed all in their own ways and I feel like it dissects for me what parts of a person’s character really matter when they’re ascending to leadership and what parts deserve all kinds of grace and humanity and space. And it does that in a way that’s funny and at times poignant and at times profane and hilarious [LAUGHS] and - and sharp. And I just like all of the emotions it evokes in me because I feel like I am with a set of people who really want to do something good for their country and also for themselves and everybody’s motivations are all mixed up. It feels like the most realistic portrayal of what I can imagine being of what inside a campaign must feel like.

SARAH: You know, it’s so funny I consider myself a Clintonite from my time working in Hillary Clinton’s 2007 presidential campaign and just a long term interest in both the Clintons, and I tried to read it when Beth was like, we put it in our extra credit book club subscription and I was like I picked it up so many times I can’t get through it. I don’t know if it’s because it’s so hard for me to detach and see it as a fictionalized account, although I did just read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham and I thought particularly the first half of that book where she’s writing about a fictionalized account of Bill and Hillary Clinton fell in love was incredibly insightful and did for me exactly what Beth just described, like help me look at what could have happened to her character and I thought that part was brilliant. Didn’t like the second half. Really loved the first half. I don’t know. I just keep picking up Primary Colors and I just can’t get into it, and I feel like I should read it. Like I feel like I’m missing some sort of important checked box of being a person that speaks about the Clintons, but I don’t know.

ANNE: Maybe your time for this book just has not arrived.

[00:37:56]

SARAH: Maybe that’s one of it.

ANNE: But I haven’t read it yet. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages. Beth, what would you say? Any bibliotherapy advice for Sarah?

BETH: You know Sarah and I struggle more about the Clintons than any other topic. So it just might not be for her. I mean, I think that she has a real defined view of them based on personal experience that might mean this book doesn’t ever become one that she cherishes. [LAUGHS] I do think there is a complexity in the portrayal of the Hillary Clinton stand-in in this book that is powerful and captivating. You know, Sarah, if you ever really want to go there just rest assured that she is not painted to be a monster.

SARAH: No, I’ve gotten in far enough in to know that.

BETH: I love the conversation that dialogue in the marriage too where you have all these discussions of where she is really focused on policy. He’s really focused on inspiring people and there’s a tension in that discussion that I feel plays out in lots of our conversations, Sarah, and lots of just national discussion about how we approach issues so I think it’s brilliant, but if its time doesn’t come for you, you know, I understand.

ANNE: There are plenty of other political books to read or not political books to read. All right, Sarah, tell us about a book.

SARAH: So my next book is How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi. So this book followed his other book which I’ve read Stamped From the Beginning, which is a comprehensive history of racism, and I mean comprehensive. He starts with Columbus and he goes to Obama. It’s a very comprehensive history. And I think you know what rocked me so hard about his I guess scholarship, his approach overall is this idea that you’re either an assimilationist, segregationist, or an anti-racist. You know he just uses history to formulate it and to walk through sorta this through line and this thread that you see in so much racial policy and so when he came out with How to Be An Anti-Racist, I was all in ‘cause he definitely like throughly convinced me of this framework in Stamped From the Beginning so I was excited to read How to Be An Anti-Racist.

And it’s a very, it’s a much more personal book. It definitely talks about his personal experiences and his personal life. I just find him so brilliant and I think in particular he’s very good at the sorta cultural undercurrance and I’m using cultural with quotation marks because he shows in such a brilliant way that like when we talk about quote-unquote “culture” or when we formulate policy in a certain way, that we really are either taking this sorta assimilationist which I think is insidious. Much more insidious and very harmful in a real powerful force in our policy and our politics, and so like when he … I think How To … Stamped From the Beginning is a big undertaking also I don’t think anybody’s going to listen to me if I recommend two 500 page history books. [ANNE AND SARAH LAUGH] In one episode. How to Be An Anti-Racist is a much more digestible, and he goes through that framework, like that you’re either an assimilationists, a segregationist, or an anti-racist and how that works in our conversations, how that works in our policies, how that works in our society and I just think it’s so illuminating and brilliant and I just you know, read everything he writes so I think he’s just one of the leading thinkers, leaders out there on this topic.

[00:41:18]

ANNE: I haven’t read this yet. That sounds really good. I’ve read the history. The long history, but I haven’t read this shorter book and I’m … I really love the fact that this has more of his personal story in it. That’s really intriguing to me.

SARAH: Oh, yeah, I mean he went through cancer. He talks about when he was a teenager and how he did this speech that was very assimilationist and he talks about like how he got to that mindset, how he saw his way out, like who led him out. It’s just a really, really good.

ANNE: Yeah I love reading about people’s journeys or hearing about them and on that note, I’ve got a novel to bring. And this is a YA novel and the reason I love it, well, first of all it’s The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert, and the reason I love a good story true or I mean true but fictional, how about nonfiction or fictional, is the way it can take important issues and make them feel real and tangible and really give them life in our minds and in our worldviews. So this book just came out this summer but it’s set on a real day that’s still to come, election day. Tuesday, November 3rd and I love how in her book that came out this year, election day happens on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020. Like it is anchored in time.

SARAH: Oh my gosh.

ANNE: And this is a day that’s incredibly important to the two teens narrators of this YA novel. Colbert said that this was the first time she had written two characters and she had to do it over this story and it was a big challenge, but she thinks it works and I think it works too. So what this book really does is it takes these like big picture issues of American history and Black history and civil rights history and voter suppression and drops these two teenage kids in the midst of them and shows you in the course of a single day them like swimming through the waters of all these things, and despite this, ‘cause I have to think you wrote a book called The Voting Booth, you want to address election related issues. It’s not - it’s not like it accidentally happens to incorporate these themes, but it doesn’t read like an issues book that’s like thinly cloaked in the story not at all. Sarah, you tell me what you think about our female protagonist okay?

She’s 18 years old. Black family. Her name is Marva. She has been waiting for this day her entire life ‘cause she’s been interested in politics since she was tiny when her second grade teacher said, what do you want to be when you grow up? She’s like okay here’s my choices: Secretary of State, environmental attorney, or Supreme Court Justice. [SARAH LAUGHS] So now she’s a senior and she is not an official volunteer but this is the first election she can vote in, she can barely stand how excited she is to be part of the process. So she’s at the poles first thing in the morning. She’s got her clipboard and the other teen narrative named Duke, he’s like this girl looks like she belongs and she’s running things she’s making things happen and she’s a teacher except she looks like she’s my age.

So she’s at the poles with her clipboard very early in the morning where she meets this other Black, 18 year old teen named Duke and he’s also from a family who cares deeply about politics. Always has, his brother is a huge activist who was shot in a drive-by shooting not that long before, I think a couple years, which he says he hates because people hear drive-by and they make all these assumptions and he’s very tender about that ‘cause he doesn’t feel it does justice to his brother what people assume based on very little information. But he shows up to vote and finds out he’s not on the rolls, you know, Marva with her clipboard who is just so excited to be a part of the process I mean that sounds like Sarah, right?

[00:44:52]

BETH: It does. Absolutely. [SARAH LAUGHS] I know my place in this duo. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Duke cannot go back home to his family without an ‘I Voted’ sticker, like this needs to happen and Marva is determined to help in any way she can. So these two kids embark on a ... almost madcap adventure through the city except the stakes are way too high for that to be quite accurate. But I mean does involve funny issues like her Instagram famous cat goes missing and they have to go find it somehow, [BETH LAUGHS] but also really serious issues like what happens when these two Black teenagers get pulled over for a traffic stop and they swap stories about their pasts and they hold their breaths as the cop interrogates them. So there’s definitely a mix of the heavy and the light, but I really enjoyed this book as an adult. I’ve recommended it a ton since I read it early this summer. But I do like how it takes these issues that are so abstract for so many teens and so many adults both and it puts them into a story that really resonates.

[00:45:53]

SARAH: Well and here’s the thing, when you said like a political book and I thought well we need fiction, there was a part of me that thought in many ways especially if you’re talking about literary fiction, every book is political because the political is personal and if you’re writing a book about domestic violence, that’s a political book in my opinion. And if you’re writing a book about an immigration journey, that’s a political book, and I think even books that don’t set out to have an explicitly political message which I don’t think a lot of fiction books do, what they’re doing is sharing a perspective. You know, I think one of the most powerful things that can happen in a political space is consciousness raising, this idea that like I’m not alone. Somebody else experiences this and they’re tackling struggles that are shared with me and that means that it’s not about me or my choices, that’s about something that’s going on in our culture, in our society, in our country with our laws, with our systems, and you know that can happen with nonfiction.

Like I think Can’t Even does a really good job of that, but I think it can absolutely happened with fiction and I think so many books that nobody would think of as political to me are deeply political because they’re doing that. They’re raising our consciousness. They’re helping us understand things we talk about when we talk quote-unquote “politics” be it you know taxes or public education or reproductive rights, whatever the case may be, like those are really personal issues and they affect our lives in really personal ways. You know fiction like that, that can really draw you into a story and help you see maybe an issue that felt like it was just on paper is someone else’s life is a really, really powerful political act.

ANNE: I’m glad you said that because I mean one of the reasons we’re sharing a variety of books today is because I think when we hear political books we think instructional or historical and it goes so much deeper. And you know so many books that we don’t think of as being political completely have those components, like an hour ago I had an Agatha Christie book sitting on my desk, it’s a new one coming out for the fall, and Will was like this is a very interesting stack of books you’ve got here. What is it? And there as like a YA novel called something like Love & Olives, it’s a Love & Gelato followup, and then there’s one like kinda dystopian/sci-fi book that was on the stack. He was like, is this … is this for Beth and Sarah? I was like no, no, that’s just book mail. [SARAH LAUGHS] I was just reporting to my team on what book mail came in just now when the UPS carrier was here.

And he’s like oh, ‘cause you know, Agatha Christie was on top, and then I thought about And Then There Were None and that’s about a judge enacting his own brand of unauthorized justice and I thought oh my gosh, you’re right. I never think of Agatha Christie being a political novelist but I mean, that’s totally what happens in this book. That might be a massive spoiler for And Then There Were None, so just carry on and forget about it before you pick it up if you haven’t read it yet. [SARAH LAUGHS]

***

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***

ANNE: Beth, what did you choose for your third book?

[00:49:54]

BETH: Well that’s a really beautiful segue to my third book which doesn’t seem like a political book at all. I chose The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

[00:50:02]

ANNE: Ooh, I’m intrigued. Tell me more. Also I have had this downloaded, like actually downloaded ready to hit play in the woods as opposed to connected to WiFi for I don’t know, five months, and haven’t listened yet so I’m leaning in and listening close.

BETH: I didn’t mention about my reading life that I read lots of poetry. This book feels more poetic at times than like a nonfiction read that is helping you understand how your eyes work for example. It very methodically goes through every system in the body and I never thought I would be interested in a book like this but it is so grounding to read about just this human form that we all take and how the systems of the body really form a community, how everything is related but also has its discreet work to do. There are just metaphors upon metaphors in terms of how we do live together in community, how we do set up structures to help us live together in community. How everyone does have their own work to do even in those structures and with all that connection. It’s just a perfect way to understand how at every layer we’re built to be intention with individual vs communal.

And I love it and I also just find that it reintroduces for me an element of spirituality is maybe the wrong word, but just remembering that I am part of something much bigger and that aspects of that are by design and that aspects of it are completely random. Like I love all the places where he points out we don’t know why we make tears when we’re sad. We know why we make tears for other reasons but we haven’t come to understand from an evolutionary perspective why we cry sad tears and those little bits, I don’t know, it just brings a little bit of magic back to being a person for me and I think if you have a little magic around being a person, you’re able to come into political conversation really differently.

ANNE: So it puts a little bit of the mystery back in.

BETH: Yes, yes, and wonder, you know, and awe.

ANNE: Those are great words.

BETH: I don’t get a lot of that. [LAUGHS] You don’t come away from The New Rules of War with like mystery and wonder and awe and so the balance is important to me.

ANNE: But I love that you found it in this book and I would imagine that when you picked it up, that’s not what you were expecting to feel.

[00:52:24]

BETH: Not at all. I could not have imagined that I would laugh, cry, just feel so many different things reading about veins but he doesn’t …. [ANNE AND BETH LAUGH] This is what I’m saying to you, it’s just surprise upon surprise.

ANNE: Well now I’m excited that I already have that book in my life and I want it in my brain as soon as possible. Sarah, what did you choose?

SARAH: My last book is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

ANNE: I’ve been meaning to read this forever. We’ve talked about it on the podcast. It was - it was Janey’s guest love.

SARAH: It’s so good. It does exactly what I was talking about and the type of nonfiction I read which is just it gives me this foundation, not even a foundation. I feel like he gave me like a code to like, a translation, you know, like I felt like I read this book and I could see the patterns and what was going on around me whereas before it just felt like chaos. So he uses social psychology to really set forth this moral foundation right? There are six values, universal values but depending on whether you are conservative or progressive, one will motivate you more than the other. There are things like care, respect for authority, protection of the group, fairness, purity, and he kinda walks through how these play out in different cultures and on different sides of the political spectrum, and he, you know, does a really great job of sweeping some of that personal journey and how he realized through some life experiences that just because a group was motivated by a different principal than he was that we truly need all kinds.

When I read this book, this is another one that I just talked about and talked about and talked about, and still think about and I still talk about because in the moment like this where there’s a lot of polarization and the stakes are very high, I think we can get in this place where we feel like the other side is the enemy and you know, there’s just no path forward, but there has to be a path forward. At least I don’t, you know, I don’t want to break up the union. I saw how that played out in Team of Rivals, I’m not anxious to repeat it, and so attempting to understand what’s motivating someone instead of just removing all benefit of the doubt, all grace, and assuming that you understand what motivates them and that it is quote evil or hate or whatever the case may be, I think, is just really, really, really helpful. You know the way that he gives us those tools and helps see that just because that doesn’t motivate you doesn’t mean that it’s one a motivation we could strip from the world if we wanted to, which we can’t, or one that we shouldn’t seek to try to understand in a more complex way.

[00:55:13]

ANNE: Beth, have you read this?

BETH: I have read parts of it. I have never finished it, which you’re making me feel like I need to do that. It’d probably be a good time to reground myself in these ideas.

ANNE: I was just thinking that the thing that appeals to me about that book is the same thing that I knew in hindsight I appreciated in Can’t Even that we talked about earlier is you know the world to be a certain way. You didn’t know there could even be an answer to the question why? Why is that? It just sounds like it gives you a framework to see the things that you didn’t think were seeable.

BETH: Well, and what I found with Sarah in this book because she brings it up a lot too is just it puts really crisp language around some of those things and so it’s a nice shortcut, okay. This is what’s happening. I have a label for that, so I don’t have to invest all this emotion into it because I can call it what I know it to be and there’s complexity behind that but I have a shorthand way to refer to it.

ANNE: Yeah. And I feel like sometimes it’s so hard to have conversations about things even in your own head if you don’t have the vocabulary to do so.

SARAH: I think that’s why Brené Brown is so enormously popular. I think that is her particular gift is she names things. Now sometimes she keeps naming things and I wish she would stop, [ANNE LAUGHS] like I think what she did especially with her first three books was put language and framework around things we were all experiencing in a way that was enormously helpful that sorta quieted the chaos and gave us all language, like listen, even though I was the number one Oprah fan of all time and watched it every single day and I felt like if there was ever a space that would happen, it would be the Oprah show, it’s not like you know, 10 years ago, 15 years ago we were all talking about vulnerability. We weren’t. [LAUGHS] We were not talking about that. We were not even really talking about shame I don’t think and just you know using words like that and understanding like okay, I’m motivated by care. This person is motivated by protecting the group. If we’re going to live in community together, the truth is there’s probably room for both of those things. We need each other to move forward. It is in my best interest and the interest of the thing that is motivating me to understand what motivates them.

ANNE: I was about to ask you to make an argument for Brené Brown as a political writer, but it — no argument has to be made. Like I’m thinking of reading Braving the Wilderness ...

SARAH: She is. Absolutely.

[00:57:26]

ANNE: … And how she talks about having really intense but gracious conversations about hot button political issues with people in her life.

SARAH: Well, and I think she’s so good… Like I was listening to her I think it was on Pod Save the People, she was talking about look, I go around and when I say we need to be vulnerable and be authentic and that means giving grace to the children of Donald Trump as much as to the children of Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, and she was like that’s where I get the most people standing up and walking out. It’s in like more progressive spaces where she’s pushing them that people are like, uh huh, no way. I’m on the side of right and I’m not going to listen to this, and I always think about that. I think about like her … people’s reactions to her when she does take in more explicitly political stance because I think so much of her audience assumes certain things about herself and when they are challenged in that way, they don’t like it.

ANNE: All right. I want to end with another novel. This is one I’ve recommended on the show before but not for a good long while and certainly not in this context and that is a book that I imagine most people would not think of as political, which is honestly a big reason why I chose it and that is Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. Have either of you read this?

SARAH: I have.

BETH: No.

ANNE: Okay.

SARAH: I read it quickly.

ANNE: Political book, I mean, is that how you think of it?

SARAH: Yeah, no, I think that is definitely … When you said that I was like, no, yeah, I get it. Not just because there is some explicitly political characters but I think everything that happens between Lily and Madison, the roommates, both when they’re roommates and afterwards, it is …

ANNE: It’s also exceptionally political.

SARAH: Exceptionally political absolutely, and

[00:59:08]

ANNE: Ugh, and broke my heart right at the beginning. I could just see where this was going and I do not like. I do not like.

SARAH: The politics of class for sure, for sure.

ANNE: I don’t know what you daydream about but I want to be able to drop into bookstores. I don’t want the responsibility of running one every day, let’s be honest, but I just want to be able to curate my own like bookstore displays every once in a while. I want a big display of books that you wouldn’t have thought of as political, but totally were, and this would be one of them.

Okay, so, this novel which is, it’s pretty short. I listened to this on audio. The narration was fantastic. I think it was by Marin Ireland. It was like sixish hours. Was not long. The book’s not much longer than 200 pages, but like Sarah was saying, the beginning of the story, like it sucked me right in but also broke my heart for poor Lillian. It starts at an elite boarding school in the American south, and there’s two girls, Madison is a department store heiress, and Lillian’s a scholarship kid and they get paired together, develop a fast friendship based on what they describe as their mutual weirdness, but that ends early and badly. But years later Madison finds herself in an uniquely precarious situation and Lillian is the only person she trusts to help her with it. So Lillian goes to the family … It’s like a compound. It’s in Franklin, Tennessee and she visits her friend who has by all accounts gotten the life she always wanted. She’s married to a powerful man with political ambitions who might be the next Secretary of State, like any minute now and who aspires to run for president one day.

Except they just have this one tiny problem and that is that her husband’s two kids, Madison’s two stepkids, sometimes get angry and when they do, they catch on fire. So like as I was reading this, I was picturing Jack Jack from The Incredibles. [SARAH LAUGHS] It doesn’t hurt them, but it does like set things around them on fire and also like it’s just not normal, and so the reason or one of the reasons this is extraordinary important, maybe the only reason it’s important to these kids’ father, is that he wants to run for office. He can’t have weird kids, definitely not kids that catch on fire. This is not good news … The news outlets cannot hear about it. Like nobody can know, like somebody’s gotta figure this out. ‘Cause if they don’t, like, he’s never going to be president. Sarah, you want to sing us a Hamilton song about that?

SARAH: Ha. [BETH LAUGHS] Well here’s the thing … No, because I’m still traumatized from when Lin Manuel Miranda sang that in Saturday Night Live after the Access Hollywood tape, I think about that like once a week. But here’s what I was just thinking about that book. I did not make this connection when I read the book but as you were talking about it and probably because I am training to be a child advocate in my personal life, it reminds me of The Power. What happens when people without power gain access to a physical condition that asserts their power in a space in a way that they can no longer be marginalized? Right, you know The Power Naomi Alderman where all the women gain …

[01:02:05]

ANNE: Yeah but I haven’t read it.

SARAH: It’s so good. You haven’t read it?

ANNE: And one of the reasons I haven’t read it is because I’ve been told hey, premise is amazing.

SARAH: Yeah, it is. It is. The premise is the …

ANNE: That's it.

SARAH: Well no, I disagree. I totally disagree. The premise is amazing, that women gain the power to shoot electricity out of the palms of their hands, but I think the examination of power and gender is fascinating and absolutely political, but the reason I say it makes me think of Nothing to See Here is because so often you know we talk about children and we love our own children and we fret about children in the system, but I don’t think we have solved the problem, cracked the nut about how to make sure any system, public education, child welfare, works for children.

What a way to upend that, right, you know? Like what would have happened to these kids in this scenario had this not been the condition, right? Like this, the fire, it puts them …. Like a powerful position in their own lives in a way, right? Because they have now a power to say I’m angry and you will not ignore me. Or I’m traumatized and you will not ignore me. And you must prioritize me in a way that you couldn’t if, for example, I wasn’t spontaneously combusting into flames. I just think that’s like what a cool narrative device to upend the power differential with children generally, children in a divorce, children in a political family, I just think that’s like interesting thought experiment in the same way The Power was.

ANNE: And it’s not essential that this be set in the political landscape but what I really liked about it is the way the political ambitions become a plot device that ups the stakes, like optics are everything and I also love the way Kevin Wilson plays with the idea of appearances and reality and how we present ourselves to the world and how we are seen. He riffs on that in the ending, which I think is awesome. It’s fun. It’s not like let me show you how the political world works or a meditation on the corruptive influences of unchecked power, but just seeing how the politics affect the people’s lives in this book, it was a whole lot of fun for me as a reader.

Okay, so what I’d love to hear is what you’re reading now and what you’re reading next. Beth, how about you?

[01:04:22]

BETH: I’m reading a bunch of things right now but the one that I’ll share is Rigged by David Shimer. It’s about what we’re talking about when we say election interference. And it is really fun to read. It talks all about how our CIA operated during the cold war throughout the globe, how America is actually really super good at interfering in other countries’ elections and about how our elections are being interfered with today and kinda where election interference is going, so it’s excellent.

ANNE: That sounds fascinating. I didn’t know about that one.

BETH: I think it’s relatively new. It’s another I heard this guy interviewed as an expert on a podcast and thought I need to know more from him because he was just putting language around election interference and precision around that concept that I wasn’t hearing anywhere else.

ANNE: That’s fascinating. Sarah, what about you?

SARAH: So I just last night finished A Burning by Megha Majurndar.

ANNE: Uh huh, yeah.

SARAH: Which I really enjoyed. I thought it was again an experience totally different from mine in a country that I don’t know a lot about, so I really, really liked it. I’m usually reading a couple books at once so I’m also reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree, and I’m reading another history book called On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaving Households 1850 to 1865, I know that title really rocks, but [ANNE LAUGHS] the reason I’m reading this is because for a really long time after examining my own family’s history with slave owning, I sorta learned the historical reality of my own family and a lot of families at the time is that they were small slaveholders, meaning like slaveowners of ten or less people, and I think that so much of the history and the narrative, fiction, nonfiction, around the civil war and slave owning in the United States is that we talk about plantations where massive amounts of people were being held in bondage. The reality was there were many, many, many families who were small slaveholders, especially in my part of the country. So western Kentucky, Missouri, western Tennessee, and I could not, and had been asking for a long time, find histories or narratives about that particular experience which I would really, really like to understand more in-depth, and so I … I feel really bad right now because I don’t remember who finally said oh why don’t you try this one? But I started reading it and it is really, really interesting and fascinating to understand because I think it’s neglected but important really, really important and so that’s the other book I’m reading right now.

[01:06:55]

ANNE: That sounds fascinating. My reading is very different. [SARAH AND ANNE LAUGH] Next I’m going to read The Body. I’m in the middle of a food memoir called Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah, which makes me want to go to Paris, of course, I mean who didn’t see that coming?

SARAH: Love it.

ANNE: And I am about to start a debut novel by Asha Lemmie. it’s called Fifty Words for Rain. Publisher’s Weekly called it epic and twisty, which sounds good to me and it’s about the life of a half-Black girl born illegitimately into a Japanese family of the nobility in 1940, so it’s set during the World War II years.

SARAH: I loved Pachinko so much so that makes my antennas go up because it feels Pachinko-adjacent which I’m always trying to find because I loved that novel so much. I’ve learned from you being able to articulate what I actually enjoy, like I really like … which is funny because I’m an only child. I love books about siblings. I love multigenerational family stories, so I don’t know, that sounds really good. That sounds like I might like it.

ANNE: I’ll let you know how it goes. Oh, and of course I want to read The Body now. It's already waiting for me on my app. Sarah and Beth, it’s been so fun although I can say … Although I was going to say it hasn’t done my to be read list any favors but that presumes I don’t want to add titles to it and you know I totally do. [LAUGHS] It’s just so many books, so much time situation. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.

SARAH: Thanks for having us.

BETH: Thank you. It was lots of fun.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

[01:08:21]

ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Sarah and Beth today, and I’d love to hear your favorite books about today’s topic. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/254 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.

I highly recommend checking out their podcast Pantsuit Politics and The Nuanced Life. These are priority listens for me. Listen wherever you get your podcasts. I also love following them on social media. We’ll share all those links in show notes.

Readers, subscribe now to What Should I Read Next so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!

If you’re on twitter, find me there @AnneBogel. That is Anne with an E, B as in books -O-G-E-L. Follow me there on Instagram and also at our all books, all the time account whatshouldireadnext.

Our newsletter subscribers are the first to all our news and happenings. If you’re not on the list you can fix that now by visiting whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter to sign up for our free weekly delivery.

Speaking of gifts, holiday season is right around the corner and if you enjoy this podcast and want to tangibly support it, buying that book would be a great way to support the show and it might work. Thank you in advance.

Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

Books mentioned in this episode:

Some links are affiliate links. More details here.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
Beach Read by Emily Henry
Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder by Sean McFate
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candace Millard
Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America by Jared Cohen
Primary Colors by Anonymous
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert
Love & Olives by Jenna Evans Welch
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference by David Shimer
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 by Diane Mutti Burke
Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah
Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

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What books have shaped how you see the world?
Let us know in the comments!

20 comments | Comment

20 comments

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  1. Jen says:

    For Beth’s interest in “forward-looking, solutions-oriented” books, I highly recommend Chris Murphy’s new book The Violence Inside Us. He’s known for representing Sandy Hook in the Senate, and being a leader on gun violence prevention but this isn’t a normal politician book. It dives into the biological and sociological origins of American violence — the violence here at home and the violence we export. I’m halfway through but can’t put it down!

  2. Jaime C. says:

    This was such a great episode with so many great book recommendations! Once the episode ended I immediately started it again. Appreciated this discussion so much!

  3. Nancy Andrews says:

    Thank you for this episode!! I found myself on the edge of my seat tying to get closer to the discussion and learn more. It has also exploded by TBR and podcast list!!

    • Chelsea Noble says:

      I would love to know what changed Anne’s mind about Hillbilly Elegy, too! I just saw that Netflix is releasing a movie based on the book in November.

  4. Kyla Pearlman says:

    I just had the Best Day Ever! My three favorite podcasters together on one episode, discussing books that are all now on my TBR! I became a fan of Pantsuit Politics after listening to Sarah’s first appearance on WSIRN, and now I never miss an episode of either podcast. I also got some excellent book mail today: Clap When You Land and The Dragon, The Giants, The Women. Woo-hoo!

  5. Annette Williams says:

    I really enjoyed this episode and have added several books to my wish list. I’m especially intrigued about the book about James Garfield. The current political climate has raised my curiosity about politics in the 1800s, especially the presidents we never learn about, basically anyone except Lincoln. I also subscribed to the Pantsuit Politics Podcast. Thanks to you and your guests for a smart, interesting episode.

  6. Cheryl A Peach says:

    This was a really interesting episode that I enjoyed very much. I’d really like to hear why you would no longer suggest “Hillbilly Elegy.”

    Also, I am SO grateful for your (many times) recommendation of “Americanah.” The audiobook was so fantastically wonderful. I so miss going to movies, concerts, the theatre; and honestly, this performance was stunning and provided me with the feeling of being at a Readers’ Theatre. Thank you!

  7. Sue Duronio says:

    This was such a GREAT episode! These women are so smart, so well spoken, so insightful. I learned so much. I don’t normally read history but I’m totally committed to reading a couple that they recommended here. Also, I really did NOT like The Power at all. I found the writing totally confusing to know what was going on. Interesting premise but did not work for me. Thanks again for a fantastic episode!!

  8. Brittany Headley says:

    I loved this episode. So fascinating. Many of these books I would never have picked up on my own, but now many are on my holds list at the library. I got a few for my husband, that you all recommended and I think he will like. Thank you so much!
    So curious about the Hillbilly Elegy comment as well. I loved that book and I can’t wait to see the movie in November. I watched the trailer last night and it is almost exactly as I pictured it in my head as I was reading it.

  9. Kelly says:

    To everyone wondering about Hillbilly Elegy, I imagine it’s due to the fact the book attracted criticism for emphasizing broad negative stereotypes. (Discussed in this article: https://www.statepress.com/article/2020/04/specho-review-hillbilly-elegy)

    One author even wrote a counterpoint book “What You’re Getting Wrong about Appalachia” in response: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/31/582240482/historian-makes-case-for-what-you-are-getting-wrong-about-appalachia-in-new-book

  10. Sue Baum says:

    I just finished Rodham yesterday after waiting for months on the library…really enjoyed it…especially the depiction of Hillary. Made me live her more! I also wondered if she would ever read it for a laugh.

  11. megantm says:

    I love how Anne and her guests put forth the idea that “all books are political “. I started the episode thinking that I wouldn’t add much to my TBR, but I was wrong! I am also thinking differently about some of my current reads.

  12. Karen Jeske says:

    A brand new book this week, The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, fits this topic and I know I’m looking forward to reading it. Since I haven’t read it yet I can’t recommend it but I am a big fan of Robert Putnam’s work.

  13. Ashley says:

    Great episode. I’ve had Team of Rivals on my shelf for a few years, might be time to pick it up. One book I read that was similar to Hillbilly Elegy but, in my opinion better is Liberal Redneck Manifesto. It’s by 3 comedians from the South and it’s funny and eloquent and helped me understand a lot about an area I’m not from.

  14. Derby Jones says:

    Either Sarah or Beth mentioned they were currently reading a book about our health care system which is one of my interests, as a health care professional. I wondering if we could find out what the name of that book is? thank you

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