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AILSA CHANG, HOST:
OK, we have an important holiday public service announcement. For the next few days, we will be talking to writers about what books they will be giving to friends and family. They've compiled lists so you don't have to. And now to help us with some fiction selections, we are joined by Tayari Jones, whose 2018 novel, "An American Marriage," has made it to many best-of lists this year. Welcome.
TAYARI JONES: Hi. Thank you.
CHANG: So what is your approach to book giving during the holidays?
JONES: I think of myself as kind of a book matchmaker.
JONES: You have to match two things. You have to match what you think your friend would like to read with what you think your friend should read. And you have to make a Venn diagram of that.
CHANG: OK. Well, let's start with a novel called "The Overstory" by Richard Powers. It was huge this year. It was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize. What about this book appealed to you?
JONES: And it's also huge. It's, like, a big doorstopper of a book. And I do...
CHANG: Oh, it's actually physically huge.
JONES: Yes, it's huge. And I like an immersive book where you can just commit to it and stay with it for a long time. I was really surprised at how much I loved this book because, you know, it's about trees. I had not put a lot of thought into trees. And I think some of the magic of Powers' storytelling is that he really helps you see trees and the Earth as a very urgent matter. And he does so through, you know, characters who care about the environment. And, you know, you think about it. We have various social issues that are so important to us, but if we don't have an Earth on which to have these issues, you know, all the rest of our efforts are for nothing.
CHANG: The next book on your list is another novel. It's called "Circe" by Madeline Miller. And it's kind of a reimagining of the life of Circe who shows up in all kinds of ancient Greek literature as this evil sorceress. So, you know, she's an ancient character, but how would you say this book speaks to readers in 2018?
JONES: Well, first, I want to tell you that I basically ate this book while I was on a plane.
JONES: It is about Circe. She is the enchanted goddess. But she's, like, a low-ranking goddess, so the other gods don't really respect her. And she has been exiled for sorcery, and she has various relationships with all these mortals. And I feel like modern women can totally relate to the idea of being a goddess and trying to date all these mortals. It's difficult. And it's also about work-life balance in that she...
JONES: Yes. She has lots of responsibilities as a goddess, but she also has a son whom she loves, and she has assorted lovers, and she's trying to figure out how to do all these things at once while also pursuing her own destiny and nurturing her own talents - literally, her own magic.
CHANG: Now we're going to go to a short story collection that you've picked by Renee Simms. It's called "Meet Behind Mars." Tell us about this book.
JONES: Oh, my goodness - so good. A lot of the stories are set in Detroit, which is the author's hometown. It has a lot, though, about the everyday challenges of being an African-American mother. The title story, "Meet Behind Bars," it's all in letters that a mother is writing to her child's school. Her son has been - just throughout his entire childhood career of school been put in detention for little, small infractions, accused of bullying, accused of being a criminal because he had a nail file at school. And sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's heartbreaking. But all the way through, it's just brilliantly illuminating.
CHANG: And I understand you've snuck a memoir on your list, Michelle Obama's "Becoming." Are you just a Michelle Obama fan, or is there something about the way this particular memoir is written that spoke to you so deeply?
JONES: I am Michelle Obama fan, but this memoir is fantastic. It's a love letter to the Great Migrationers who go from the South to the North in an effort to give their children a better life, the incredible sacrifice. And it's moving. It's informative. This isn't a memoir about compromising our values in order to find common ground. This is about becoming our higher selves to move forward into the future we want for our children.
CHANG: Tayari Jones, thank you so much for helping us with our holiday book list.
JONES: It's my pleasure. Happy reading.
CHANG: It just so happens Tayari Jones' novel, "An American Marriage," is included in the 2018 NPR Book Concierge. Check out book picks from critics and all our staff at npr.org/bestbooks.
(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "SKATING")
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