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Shelf Life

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Shelf Life is a show about books and the people who love them. In each episode, we invite a celebrated bibliophile (think Alan Cumming, John Waters, and Joyce Maynard) to select two of their favorite books, and then we chat about them, drawing connections between their lit choices and their lives and careers.
38 Episodes
The writer and biographer D.J. Taylor on the rich, complicated and too-short life of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, George Orwell. Almost 75 years after his death we discuss why the author of 1984 matters as much, if not more, than ever. Includes an excerpt of Orwell's "Some Thoughts on the Common Today," read for Shelf Life by Tilda Swinton.
Novelist Christopher Bollen has been writing twisty thrillers with emotional depth for over a decade. His latest, The Lost Americans, takes readers to Cairo for a deftly-plotted murder mystery set in the high-stakes world of arms traders and Egypt's authoritarian government. As with his writing, so with his book choices: we get intrigue and suspense in London during the Blitz, courtesy of Graham Greene’s 1943 espionage thriller, The Ministry of Fear, and a criminal mastermind in Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit, an early novel that helped establish the reputation of the Queen of Crime. 
Few of us need reminding that childhood can be a difficult and challenging time; but it can also be a magical one. That duality is at the heart of The Whalebone Theater, the best-selling debut novel of Joana Quinn. Childhood is central, also, to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic novel, The Secret Garden, in which a group of three young children discover the transformative magic of nature during the course of three seasons in a remote house in the Yorkshire moors. It is one of two books that Quinn has chosen for Shelf Life. The other is Michael Ondaatje’s prize-winning novel, The English Patient, a deeply poetic story of love and betrayal, identity and class that takes place in an abandoned Italian villa in the waning days of the Second World War. 
Tender hearted children growing up in oppressive and claustrophobic societies dominate the two novels chosen by the journalist and musician, Ari Shapiro. The first is Douglas Stuart’s acclaimed sophomore novel, Young Mungo; the second is Belinda Huijuan Tang’s A Map for the Missing. As one of the hosts for NPR’s flagship program, All Things Considered, listeners will  be familiar with Shapiro's flair for bringing a lively curiosity to the world around us, whether it be reporting from India on rising sea levels, or Afghanistan in the company of the President. But while he has met more than his fair share of world leaders, scientists, and business executives, when he wants to really understand the world, he most often turns to novels. “The conversations that help me see the world most clearly are generally not with researchers, policy makers, or so-called experts,” Shapiro writes in his new book, The Best Strangers in the World. “They aren’t with the people journalists crassly call ‘newsmakers’ at all. They’re with artists–especially writers.” 
Sera Gamble is perhaps best known as the screenwriter and showrunner for the hit Netflix show You, based on the novels of Caroline Kepnes, in which the romantic hero is not just a pretty face; he’s a serial killer as well. You is not the first book that Gamble has turned into darkly entertaining TV. She also created The Magicians for the SyFy Channel, based on the best-selling novel by Lev Grossman. And she was a showrunner on Supernatural, a haunting fantasy series which ran for 15 seasons. Gamble has said, “I’m a horror writer in my heart, in that I always like to ask myself what scares me, and what scares us universally when I’m approaching a story. To me there’s just about nothing scarier than the truth that we can never really know another person.” There are scares aplenty in the books she has chosen to talk about for Shelf Life: Stephen King’s classic nail-biter, Misery, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s tender and haunting dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. 
For 22 years Brooke Gladstone has been demystifying the media for listeners of her indispensable public radio show, On the Media.  But her long career, which began in summer stock theater, has also included stints as editor NPR's Weekend Edition and All Things Considered, as well as a three-year posting to Moscow as a correspondent for NPR. We’ll get to see just how her knowledge of Russian history and language helps her appreciate her favorite novel, the Russian classic, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, in which the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate is juxtaposed with a story of the Devil wreaks havoc in 1930s Moscow’s. 
A bus trip to Auschwitz in the company of the writer Jerry Stahl, who in 2016 set off for Poland to confront one of the darkest chapters in human history. The resulting book, Nein Nein Nein, is fast-paced, darkly absurd, and mordantly funny without ever minimizing the horrors at its center. In that regard it has something in common with Stahl’s best-selling memoir, Permanent Midnight, in which he mined both humor and pathos from his harrowing experience as a spiraling heroin addict trying to manage a high-flying script-writing career in 1980s Hollywood. That book was, was made into a 1998 movie starring Ben Stiller as Stahl, is also a brilliant satire of Hollywood, so it’s not surprising that he cites Nathaniel West’s classic Hollywood novel, Day of the Locust, as the book that inspired him to be a writer. 
In this special holiday episode of Shelf Life, we took time out from our regular format to see what  guests old and new read in 2022. The episode starts with Joyce Maynard, who shot to fame with her 1998 memoir At Home in the World, in which she wrote candidly about the traumatic relationship she had with the author of Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. But Maynard has also written many novels including Labor Day and To Die For, both made into acclaimed movies, as well as (more recently), Count the Ways.   After discovering what books found their way onto Joyce's reading list in 2022 we pose the same question to Darcey Steinke, author of Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves, and Flash Count Diary, among others, before rounding out the show with the legendary Edmund White, now 82, a pioneer in contemporary queer fiction (A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty)  and still writing up a storm (a new novel is due in May 2023) and the irrepressible director, writer, and performer John Waters, a debut novelist himself in 2022 with Liarmouth: A Feel Bad Romance.
If you sometimes fret that your opportunity to make your mark on the world has passed, take a leaf from Marion Nestle’s career.  At 50, she found herself divorced, out of a job, and not able to get a credit card. Despite that she persevered, going back to school, publishing her career-changing book, Food Politics,  at the age of 66. It changed her life. Now aged 86, Nestle is still very much a full-throated advocate for debunking popular food myths, and exposing the links between dietary misinformation and a rapacious food industry driven by the bottom line. In her new memoir, Slow Cooked, she recounts both her difficult upbringing as a child of a loveless marriage, and the various twists and turns that lead to her epiphany that food and nutrition was to be her subject in life. The book she has chosen to talk about in this episode  is Sidney Mintz’s groundbreaking study, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. 
In this episode, Leila Taylor, the author of Darkly, an expansive rumination on the relationship between Gothic narratives and the Black experience in America, talks haunted houses courtesy of Shirley Jackson, meditations on a cockroach in a seminal work by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, and being a creepy kid who loved vampires and graveyards. But although Taylor gravitated to Goth culture, she was always aware that the mask never quite fit. “Whiteness was never something I aspired to, but I considered myself a member of this tribe,” she writes in Darkly. “I’ll admit, I sometimes felt a bit Blacula-ish in their presence—a Black version of a white story.”
Do good people make for good novels? In this episode, the author Lydia Millet, best known for The Children’s Bible, a National Book Award Finalist, talks about her latest novel, Dinosaurs,  the story of Gil, an unambiguously good man who is determined to make the world a better place.  “I think books should have an agenda, but I don’t think you should be able to deliver a one-liner about what that agenda is,” she has said. “It should be an agenda felt by the reader, sensed by the reader, but not fully known. In my work, often there’s a sort of agenda of empathy.” Later in the show we’ll discuss what agenda might be lurking between the lines of two of Lydia Millet’s favorite books - the short, tight prose pieces in Mary Ruefle’s collection, The Most of It, and in Mary Robinson’s 2001 novel, Why Did I Ever. And we'll hear from Mary Ruefle herself, as she reads from one of the pieces in The Most It.
How do we synthesize a 1000-plus years of history into a 300–page book. The historian Orlando Figes, who has made the study of Russia his lifelong work, shows us how in his new book, The Story of Russia.  Coming at a moment when Russia's history is being used as a pretext for the war in Ukraine, the timing could not be more pertinent. In part two of the show, the historian shares his passion for Gustav Flaubert's great novel, Madame Bovary.  Figes has published ten books on Russian and European history, including the prizewinning study of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, and has been a historical consultant on films such as Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightlye, and a BBC adaptation of War & Peace. Born in London in 1958, his mother was Eva Figes, a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi Germany with her parents and would go on to become an acclaimed novelist herself, and perhaps a seminal influence on her son.
In that esteemed group of soothsayers, we might  consider adding the novelist A.M. Homes. Homes has just published her eighth novel, The Unfolding, a wild trippy ride of a novel that opens on election night, 2008 and closes two months later at the inauguration of one Barack Hussein Obama.  Homes began the novel long before the 2016 election of Donald Trump, but much of it now reads more like non-fiction, an origins story of the January 6 coup, but with a novelist’s curiosity and a refreshing, caustic wit. She has said, “The oddity or the absurdity of everyday experience is part of what I’m capturing. My sense is that life itself can be so incredibly painful and disturbing that if one is to survive it, one has to find the humor in it.” There is humor, too, in Edward Albee’s one act play, An American Dream, one of the two works of fiction featured in this episode. The other is Richard Yates 1975 novel, Disturbing the Peace, a gimlet-eyed examination of a man in extremis.
Jonathan Escoffery  navigates identity, belonging and the hollow promise of the American Dream in his mesmerizing debut If I Survive You, a book that has been long-listed for the National Book Award. Escoffery  has said, “I love a compelling narrative voice—a bit of personality, a bit of humor couched in some other emotion. I love a story that teaches me something.” In this episode we find out what Escoffery has learned from the hyper masculine and often violent short stories of Denis Johnson’s acclaimed collection, Jesus’s Son, and the vignettes in the electric coming-of-age novel, We The Animals by Justin Torres. In between, insights on living through Hurricane Andrew, sleeping in his car, and the joys of ackee.
In his new memoir All Down Darkness Wide, the award-wining poet, Sean Hewitt, describes that experience of living with the chronically depressed in prose that glints and shimmers with a poetic sensibility influenced in part by his literary hero, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century poet and Jesuit priest who, like Hewitt, struggled with his sexual orientation. For Hewitt that struggle meant learning at a young age how to play act convincingly. “I realized while I was writing the memoir just how prevalent the theme of lying was in my own life,” he has said. “Whether that was lying before I came out or continuing to lie in certain ways afterwards as a way of protecting myself or to create certain fictions. Writing a memoir seemed like the perfect antidote to that because it is a truth-telling exercise.” You could say that different kinds of truth-telling are represented in Hewitt’s two book choices for this show. One is Alice Oswald’s book-length eco-poem, Dart, which tells the story of an English river through the conversations of people who live and work on it. The other is The Land of Spices, a deeply autobiographical novel set in an Irish convent by the writer Kate O’Brien, a book that was banned at the time of its publication in 1941.
Michael Cunningham is the author of seven novels, as well as a short story collection and several non-fiction books, including his travelogue, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown. He had intended to become an artist, but when a girlfriend induced him to read Virginia Woolf a seed was planted that would eventually blossoming into his 1998 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Hours, in which three narratives of women's lives alternate and intersect to luminous effect. Of his own craft he has said, “in the writing of a novel one must find a balance between calculation and intuition. Too much calculation, and it’s just a Swiss music box, it just doesn’t feel alive; and too much intuition and it’s just a mess.” Getting that percentage of calculation to intuition right are the authors of the two books that Cunningham has selected to talk about today, including George Saunder’s Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. 
Anthony Fabian, the director of this summer's sleeper hit, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris,  is a long-time Paul Gallico fan, and for this episode of Shelf Life he has chosen the author’s beloved children’s book, Jennie (known as The Abandoned in the U.S.), about a boy’s metamorphosis into a cat, as one of his two favorite books. The other is Dancer, the mesmerizing 2003 novel by the Irish writer Colum McCann about the life of the legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev.  
The Scottish novelist Douglas Stuart is a master of writing about tender souls in tough spaces. He is a tender soul himself, having grown up gay in working class Glasgow with an alcoholic mother (she  died when he was 16), an experience that informs both his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, which won the Booker Prize, and his 2022 follow-up, Young Mungo. In both books, Stuart has created indelible portraits of complicated mothers and their conflicted sons trying to navigate a hostile and soul-sapping world. “I’m always writing about loneliness and belonging and love,” he has said. “That’s what keeps me coming back to the page.” Loneliness and belonging and love might also be what draws Stuart to the defiant heroine of Alan Warner’s 1995 novel, Morvern Callar, and the tempestuous and violent world of 17th century soldiers in Cromwell’s New Model Army in Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt, the two books he has chosen to talk about in this episode of Shelf Life.
Norwegian pop star Sondre Lerche has been making music and releasing albums since he was a teenager, songs that ache with yearning and that are underpinned by swooning strings,  bossa nova rhythms, and jazz stylings. It was always clear that Lerche was a romantic, but a romantic with a sometimes aching, melancholy heart. If you needed evidence of that, look no further than the two books he’s chosen for this episode of shelf life - Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and Geir Gulliksen’s The Story of a Marriage. Though very different, both novels are interested in the power dynamics of relationships, and the alchemy of love. 
It took William Boyd three failed attempts at writing a novel before he hit gold with A Good Man in Africa, which won him both the Whitbread Book Award for a first novel and the Somerset Maugham Award. That was in 1981, and Boyd hasn’t stopped to draw breath since. His 16th novel, Trio, has just been published in paperback, and another novel will be published this year. Among his other achievements is bringing James Bond back to life, in the novel Solo–in which the martini-swigging spy undertakes a mission to the fictional country of Zanzarim, then in the midst of a civil war. As it happens, a fictional country on the brink of civil war is the conceit for Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s famous comic novel of war reporters in the field, one of two books that Boyd has chosen for this episode of Shelf Life. The other is Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, a gimlet eyed portrait of London’s post-war publishing world. 
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