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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
All happy families are alike, wrote Leo Tolstoy, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That simple truism is the engine that's driven hundreds of thousands of novels over the years, including this one. And this year, once again, the NPR Books Concierge is there for you, a searchable online resource packed with hundreds of recommendations of the year's best books. I'm Glen Weldon. Today on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, we're talking about three great 2020 books about families from this year's concierge, so don't go away.
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WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us from her home in Washington, D.C., is Barrie Hardymon, senior editor at NPR's Weekend Edition. Hey, Barrie.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hi. How's it going?
WELDON: It's going. Now, let's tell folks at the top here that the Books Concierge is, for those on the Arts Desk who produce it - that's Rose Friedman, Petra Mayer, Beth Novey, Meghan Sullivan, led by Ellen Silva, with, of course, the enormous contribution of the entire NPR visuals team to make it pretty - it's a labor of love, sure, but it's also a labor of labor. It's a lot of work. They start in early summer. A lot of it is chasing very busy NPR folks and freelancers to contribute blurbs of their favorite books of the year. How many did they hit you up for this year?
HARDYMON: I think it was five or six.
WELDON: Ask me how many I contributed.
HARDYMON: How many did you contribute, Glen?
WELDON: Zero, zip, none. There have been years when I - yeah, your lovable, furry (ph) pal Glen Weldon - contributed more blurbs than anyone else at all. And 2020 was not a year for sustained concentration for me.
HARDYMON: Yup, yup.
WELDON: So not a big reading year.
HARDYMON: Yup. No, I fully understand. We're all doing what we can to keep our eyes open and our hearts beating (laughter).
WELDON: Absolutely, absolutely. And I admire the hell out of you for being able to do it.
Now, your first pick - it's a debut novel that's gotten the kind of response that only happens to debut novelists in the movies. It's a New York Times bestseller. It was longlisted for the Booker. It's on a slew of critics' top 10 lists. Now, I haven't read this book, Barrie, but I can tell you as a writer, already, I resent the hell out of it. So...
HARDYMON: Yeah, you should.
WELDON: You're going to have to win me over.
WELDON: What's the book, and what's it about?
HARDYMON: Well, it's called "Such A Fun Age," and it's by Kiley Reid. It's a wonderful social satire that deals with race and class in America.
Now, there were a lot of books that came out about race and class in America this year. One thing that I very much like about this one is that it's very funny. And I think one of the reasons that I have seen it in so many different places - I have seen it in book clubs. I have seen it on the New York Times Best Seller list. I have seen it in very serious places where people are discussing it. And also, I'm sure you at some point, or if you can't now, be able to find it on the shelves at, you know, your local big (ph) store. But it is because it is accessible to - at - on a number of levels to a number of kinds of people.
So let me just quickly set it up for you. It is about the relationship between a nice white lady and her Black babysitter. Because there are so many wonderful surprises in this book, I don't want to sort of go that much further. The inciting incident in which the babysitter is mistaken for kidnapping the child is one of those things that should cause you real fear, and it does. But it's turned around in this very interesting way.
And the discussion is just incredibly nuanced. This is one of these books that I'm constantly recommending to book clubs 'cause I think more people should be talking about it. And it's kind of one of those things, especially if you are a white lady, like myself - if you are a white lady that employs people to take care of your children, you should be thinking about all the things that this book really writes about in such a very precise and a cute way.
And it's really fun. It's just - it keeps going. It's the sort of perpetual motion of, like, what is this plot going to be? So even if you're sort of not in it for the social lessons, you're still getting a really great yarn.
WELDON: Yeah, a lot of us have some work to do, and sometimes it's good when the homework doesn't feel like homework, you know?
HARDYMON: That's right. And I will say this is the kind of book that you will come away thinking, oh, I need to do some more work, and that's good. It is called "Such A Fun Age," as in, oh, she's at such a fun age, but also the age itself - such a fun age. So there's, like, a couple of different ways you can read that - by Kiley Reid. And I think she's - I wish I could remember how old she is, but it's some absolutely - it will make you resent her even further if I dare to say the number on this program.
WELDON: Yeah, not possible.
OK, your next pick is another bestseller. You got your finger on the pulse here, Barrie. It's also on several best books of the year lists, including President Obama's. Now, all the reviews I've read have said some variation of, it's a page-turner, which name a book that isn't, technically. But it's also a literary thriller, which whenever I see that term, it always seems to me like it's throwing shade, like it's - kind of smells like genre snobbery. So what's the book, and what's your take?
HARDYMON: It's called "Long Bright River," and it's by Liz Moore. She is not a debut novelist. She's written a bunch of other things and is kind of an interesting writer because this book is different than many of her other ones.
And the thing I really love about this book is that when people say, hey, what should I read? Oh, you read mysteries? I got one for you. Oh, you like a family drama? Oh, I got one for you. Oh, are you interested about the opioid epidemic in America? I got one for you. There are so many different kinds of sort of slots that you can put this one in, and it does all of those things really well.
It is a mystery thriller which takes place in a down-on-its-luck neighborhood in Philadelphia, where the opioid epidemic has hit especially hard. And the protagonist is a police officer, and she's looking for her sister, who is a drug addict. It's a great setup with lots of twists and turns, and not the kind of twists and turns - I don't know if this bothers you, Glen - where it's so improbable that the twist doesn't give you - you're like, oh, my God. Everything really makes sense in this book, but you still can't see it coming - I mean, unlike 2020, actually. It's one of those - like, it's a much better yarn as far as mystery thrillers go.
But this relationship between the sisters - there are lots of flashbacks that sort of tell the story of their upbringing and how one came to be a police officer and the other came to be something very different. And I recognize this relationship. I recognize this family. And it is heartbreaking, and it is also really hopeful about how families with people who have gone in different ways can find their way back to each other - how they should, when they shouldn't. It's all of these things. It is both this real sort of yarn about a family that's had it tough, but it's also about policing, you know, when addiction is the thing at the center of it. And it's about cities - your good, old, post-industrial, down-on-its-luck city.
So this is one of these ones - I mean, you can give it to your dad, you can give it to your brother, you can give it to your sister, you can give it to your friend. I'm saying this as though you still have gifts to give. But you know what? Many of us didn't get them in on time.
HARDYMON: So this one is still available to you, is what I'm saying. It is "Long Bright River," and it is by Liz Moore.
WELDON: Cool. And your last pick is a book for the young and the young at heart. And you came by it in a kind of unusual but, I got to say, a very Barrie Hardymon way. What are we talking about here?
HARDYMON: So I really love to read the By the Book section of The New York Times, and I like to hate-read it, Glen. How do you read it?
WELDON: Yeah, it's hate-reading. Like, oh, another "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." Good for you. Oh, "Suitable Boy" - good, good. Good to hear. So many "Suitable Boys."
HARDYMON: Good for you. Never heard of it. And, I mean, it's literally - it's like, oh, I haven't finished "Anna Karenina" yet. Like, whatever. Or like, I've got to - like, come on. There's - like, nobody comes out good, usually, in these things.
HARDYMON: So maybe I'm just jealous that nobody's asked me to do a By the Book yet. We can look into that later.
HARDYMON: So this was recommended by Jia Tolentino, the wonderful essayist, in her By the Book. You know, they - normally, people are like, well, I'm going back and reading all of Proust. But she said, you know, I think people don't read enough, you know, YA, and she recommended a book by Rebecca Stead, which is called "When You Reach Me." And I had never heard of Rebecca Stead 'cause my kids aren't quite old enough to have read her, and I was too old to - but also young at heart - very young, and I look great - but to have found her on my own. And so I thought, oh, this is - like, 'cause Jia Tolentino's an essayist, I thought, this will be really interesting. So I started to read her, which meant that I was on the edge of my seat for any book that she writes. It's called "The List Of Things That Will Not Change." And I was not disappointed at all.
Parents, I know that you have the thing where someone has asked you to read the "Magic Tree House," and you think, oh, my God, let's burn it down. This one is just such a pleasure to read. It really - and I think it actually - I think you can read it to a number of ages.
I mean, just quickly set it up for you. It's about a young girl named Bea. She's 12. And she's the narrator, and you're in her head. And the list of things that will not change are things that will not change now that her parents are divorced. This is not another divorce novel where you, like, learn lessons, although you probably will learn some lessons. It is so authentic to what a 12-year-old might be feeling, right down to the kind of - the bad behavior is so recognizable. And, you know, sometimes you're like, oh, do I really want to be in the head of a 12-year-old? You do. She's so likable. It will remind you of all of the things that you loved and maybe lost when you were her age.
And the thing I love about this is the title sort of rings another bell, which is a book called "Nobody's Family Is Going To Change" by Louise Fitzhugh. And both of these books - which I - whenever I say it, I always get the titles mixed up - have this feeling that there are things about your life that are solid. You can't change that your parents are getting divorced. But there are some things that you have control over, and they are wonderful.
Plus, another thing I really love about this book is not all the adults are terrible. You know how sometimes you get the - like, and I love a Victorian, like, oh, my God, the orphans have left; the matron is coming after them. But the parents are really trying to do their best.
So this is one of these things. It's like if you've got to do a book club with your kid, pick this one. It is just lovely. Her writing is great. It's a great novel for, I think, any age. And I do think - I will say this. I think you really can easily do this for, like, ages 7, 8, if you're reading it to them, and up. So it's a real range. So it is "The List Of Things That Will Not Change." It is by author Rebecca Stead.
WELDON: Excellent, excellent. So if you want more family-related book recommendations or book recommendations in other genres, there's a whole slew of them, and it's very pretty. And you can filter and filter and filter and click around. Make sure to check out NPR's Book Concierge. You can find it online at npr.org/bestbooks.
Barrie, you were great. Thanks for being here.
HARDYMON: Glen, it's always fun to see your face and hear your voice.
WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, and we will see you all tomorrow.
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