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The best reads of 2021


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Well, as we close the book on 2021, we wanted to share some good reads.

Jeffrey Brown talks to some "NewsHour" literary friends to get their best recommendations on what to curl up on the couch with or share with a friend.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: I'm joined here in studio by Carlos Lozada, the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2019. And, from Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson, author of novels for adults, as well as Newbery Honor-winning titles for young readers. She was the Library of Congress' National Ambassador for young People's Literature and a MacArthur fellow last year.

And it's really nice to see and talk to both of you.

I feel like I always start with fiction, so, for once, we're going to start with nonfiction.

Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post: Thank you.

Jeffrey Brown: Carlos, give us a couple of picks.

Carlos Lozada: I want to start with two books that I think get to some current major crises we're facing, but do so in really novel ways.

First is "Under a White Sky" by Elizabeth Kolbert. She's probably best known for her book "The Sixth Extinction," which depicted the crushing of the planet's biodiversity under the human footprint. This subsequent book is kind of a perfect sequel, because it's a warning about how even very well-intentioned fixes to our environmental problems can be causing more damage.

It's kind of a pessimistic book, but I think a really important one.

Jeffrey Brown: OK.

Carlos Lozada: The second one I want to highlight is called "Read Until You Understand" by Farah Griffin.

Jeffrey Brown: That's a good title.

Carlos Lozada: It's a great title...

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Carlos Lozada: ... in that the book actually suits it very well.

There have been so many books that try to get at this moment of wrestling with the challenges of racial justice, and Griffin's does so in a way that mixes memoir and political analysis and kind of a literature seminar all at once.

What I like about this book so much is that it shows that reading is a vital part of engaged citizenship.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Jacqueline Woodson, so give us a couple, of well, novels, if you can. What have you got?

Jacqueline Woodson, Author, "Red at the Bone": I can. And it's so funny because Carlos and I are so much on the same page in terms of the energy of what we're reading.

I want to start with Imbolo Mbue. But her book is called "How Beautiful We Were. And it's a novel about an African village that is struggling against a big American oil company that's messing up their environment. So it's a book about environmental justice. It's a book about family. It's a book about when big American businesses come into communities in other countries and destroy them or set out to destroy them.

And one thing I love about this book is, it's so thoughtful, but it's also funny. I mean, she can get at the humor in some of the hardest places.

Another book that I came by way of accident that just last night won Center for Fiction's First Novel award is a book called "The Five Wounds" by a woman named Kirstin Valdez Quade.

It's a book about a family where the teenage girl Angel gets pregnant, and she shows up at her father's house on the day that he is practicing to play the role of Jesus in the town ceremony.

But here's the thing that stood out for about that book for me. One thing that Kirstin does is, she uses Spanish, and it's never italicized, which I love, because what she's saying in this book is, my language is not other, and this story is not other, and my people are not other.

This was a first novel that really blew me away.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Carlos, I mean, in terms of themes, I know you spent a lot of time looking at our politics and our divided politics. You have a couple from the past year?

Carlos Lozada: Yes, I have read a lot of Trump books, way too many Trump books in my day job at The Washington Post.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.

Carlos Lozada: And a lot of them are of the can you believe he did this or said that kind of school?

But in the latest that are coming out, you start seeing books that are more sort of thoughtful and thematic and develop an argument.

Two I want to highlight our first "Reign of Terror" by Spencer Ackerman. This book came out just a few months ago, around the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And it draws a very bright and clear line between the excesses of the 9/11 era and the excesses of the Trump presidency.

It looks at issues such as expanding presidential power, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment, weakening oversight, and just the open-ended nature of the war on terror, and shows how a lot of those things were kind of redirected and harnessed during the Trump years.

The other is a book by Fiona Hill called "There Is Nothing for You Here." And Fiona Hill is a Russia expert who was an adviser in the Trump White House and became best known probably when she testified during the first Trump impeachment regarding Ukraine.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. "NewsHour" viewers will remember that well.

Carlos Lozada: She looks at three places that she knows well, her native England, where she grew up in a working class mining town, Russia, which she studied as an academic, and the United States, where she's lived for many years and is a U.S. citizen, and shows how very similar cultural and economic forces are propelling the rise of populism in all three places.

So she's uniquely positioned to tell the story, and it's the rare Trump book that doesn't obsess about Trump.

Jeffrey Brown: Jacqueline, put on your young readers' hat here.

Give us a couple.

Jacqueline Woodson: Your legacy by Schele Williams, which is a book about enslaved African Americans before they were enslaved. So it takes us back to different parts of Africa and shows us the culture and the grandeur and the wealth and the civility that people had before they were brought to this country as enslaved people.

And I really love that book, because it's not starting the narrative at enslavement. It's starting the narrative when people were people who were not enslaved.

So -- and another quirky book that I really love is Mo Willems, the beloved Mo Willems, wrote a book called "Opposites Abstract," which is about concepts, and it's a really thoughtful way to talk about abstract images with very young people.

Jeffrey Brown: I want to ask you both before we go.

I will start with you, Jacqueline Woodson, on this one. Just was there a book that you went back to this year or that -- perhaps that you read for the first time, an older book that was particularly meaningful to you?

Jacqueline Woodson: I'm so glad you asked that, Jeff, because I have been reading Ida B. Wells' autobiography.

And it's just the book I needed. I needed to think about someone who survived harder times and who was brave in them and who changed a lot of the world in the work that she did so. So, Ida B. Wells, for the win, was the book that got me through a lot this year.

Jeffrey Brown: Carlos, what about for you?

Carlos Lozada: So, I have many unread books in my home, many yet-to-be-read books in my in my home.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Carlos Lozada: And one I picked up this year was "Night Draws Near" by Anthony Shadid, the late great foreign correspondent and war reporter.

Jeffrey Brown: Absolutely.

Carlos Lozada: So many of the best known books of -- about American warfare tend to be about the Americans, tend to be about how Americans go off, try to transform distant lands, and are transformed themselves by the experience.

Shadid's this book is different. Shadid looks at how the Iraq War was lived through the eyes of ordinary Iraqi people, the depth of his reporting, the empathy of his spirit. And he was able to show, for instance, how Iraqis can both despise a domestic dictator and resent the foreign occupier. And those two things are not inconsistent.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, I want to thank you both for sharing your books and love of reading.

Jacqueline Woodson, Carlos Lozada, thank you very much.

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