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Book Recommendations For The Post-Election Escapists


It is hardly worth saying these words again out loud. Still, I'm going to do it. It's been a really exhausting year. No matter who you voted for, you've probably noticed tensions are high and have been so for a while. And now Thanksgiving, traditionally the holiday that is meant to be, you know, relaxing. It often ends with a fight between Aunt Ida and Uncle Jim or who gets the last piece of pumpkin pie. So how about hiding with a book? WEEKEND EDITION books editor Barrie Hardymon has some literary strategies to soothe all of us after this stressful election season. She joins me now in the studio. Hello, Barrie.


MARTIN: OK, escape means different things for different people. How should we be thinking about what qualifies as escapist literature?

HARDYMON: Well, the short answer is whatever you want.


HARDYMON: So if you want to read Kierkegaard in front of your fireplace and a pumpkin pie, that's - I'm not going to stop you.

MARTIN: I am not going to do that. But...

HARDYMON: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: ...You know, different strokes for different folks.

HARDYMON: But, you know, for the purposes of this radio interview, let me give you a couple ways to think about it. So I like to divide it into categories.


HARDYMON: So first category, which is truly an escape because the furthest you can go in a book is anywhere. So that would be a new reality - sci-fi, fantasy. And, you know, broadly, you can go down two paths here. You could go down, like, the actual yellow brick road, which is kind of, like, a fun place where you can put a spell on your mother. This is kind of the "Harry Potter" everything's great. But I actually like to go the other way, which is actually directly into hell.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HARDYMON: So - which is - 'cause I think, you know, when you're really trying to escape, go to the apocalypse 'cause...

MARTIN: Go to the worst thing...

HARDYMON: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...So it makes you feel better about your own situation.

HARDYMON: Exactly. So - now, everybody knows there are tons of great apocalypse novels. Everyone loves a dystopia. You know, if you haven't read "The Handmaid's Tale," go do it. However, one little-known apocalyptic tale that I think people don't know about is called "Riddley Walker." It's by Russell Hoban. It's set about 2,000 years in the future, and there's been a nuclear holocaust. And there's this unseen band of rulers who are trying to unearth the detritus of previous times.

But the thing I really love about "Riddley Walker" is the - while it is broadly set in the future, and so it is kind of our world, there's a whole different language. And the thing I - that's kind of marvelous about it is that it finds - in what is clearly the death of civilization, you can see the tools of how one might actually prevent the death of civilization. So there's this kind of...

MARTIN: Nice little silver lining.

HARDYMON: Yeah, there's a little silver lining. And it's just weird and not read nearly enough. So go to your local library and get that one.

MARTIN: OK. But the truth is I don't really love sci-fi. I like being grounded in real stuff, but I also want to escape...

HARDYMON: You don't want a magic wand?

MARTIN: ...So that seems like a contradiction. I don't know.

HARDYMON: Well - so if you want an escape in which you're still in - on Earth...

MARTIN: Yes, that's what I want. Earthly escape.

HARDYMON: Right. So people who've heard me on the radio or, you know, in line at the supermarket will know that my favorite book of all is called "Wolf Hall" and its sequel, "Bring Up The Bodies." And the thing is what you want for this is something long, right? Because, you know, someone's trying to get you to help with dinner. Somebody wants you to do something with potatoes.

MARTIN: Oh, that's true.

HARDYMON: Someone wants to have a political argument. And you're like oh, I can't.

MARTIN: Sorry.

HARDYMON: I have 700 books to read. It is a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII by Hilary Mantel. She won the Booker for not one, but both, also for "Bring Up The Bodies." And if you have heard the name Thomas Cromwell in maybe some of our political reporting, you'll note that Steve Bannon actually recently compared himself to Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. This Thomas Cromwell is thoughtful and fascinating. And it is - it's a real meditation on power and how to treat powerful people.

So that's two which will keep you reading for a long time. If you want another pair, I would go for "I, Claudius" and "Claudius The God" by Robert Graves. So those are big books that you can really sink your teeth into.

MARTIN: OK. But they're heavy and they're heavy. Like, they're actually heavy to carry around and there's just a lot going on.

HARDYMON: And you want to fit more...

MARTIN: Yeah. I don't know. What do you have that's kind of lighter fare?

HARDYMON: No, I've had this problem. I want to take a lot of shoes to Thanksgiving, too. So another option for you would be, let's say, a slim paperback. Sound good?



MARTIN: Love it.

HARDYMON: Great. So how do you feel about a plague novel? This...

MARTIN: Barrie.

HARDYMON: Now, I know. But here is the great thing. So I'm going to recommend "Year Of Wonders" by Geraldine Brooks. It is about the bubonic plague. But (laughter) when things seem bad, whether it's the ravages of a divided nation over a very, very bruising election year or if it's just that, you know, your kids are really driving you nuts and they won't be quiet at the table, then what you really need is perspective. And nothing will give you perspective like the plague.

MARTIN: Like the plague.

HARDYMON: So anyway, this - but it really is a beautiful book. It's told from the - it's about a village in England, which is actually - this is actually a true story. While the plague was ravaging the country, they decided to quarantine themselves so that nobody could leave the village and therefore infect other people. Two-thirds of the village died. I know this sounds really depressing. It's actually very uplifting. And also, at the end of it, you know, the people who are left feel that they have done the right thing for humanity. And you, too, can do the right thing for humanity, which is the dishes for whoever made...

MARTIN: Wow, wrapping it all up with a bow. Barrie Hardymon, our books editor. Lots of escapist literature suggestions. Thank you, Barrie.

HARDYMON: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.