15 Favorite Episodes as the Book Review Podcast Turns 15

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This was a near impossible task. Actually, it was an impossible task, as I assigned myself a top 10 list but was unable to stick to it. Instead, going through the eight years of weekly episodes in which I’ve hosted the Book Review’s podcast (my predecessor, Sam Tanenhaus, was the founding host), I came up with what I thought was a strict culling of favorites. That initial list was 35 episodes long.

What made these episodes my favorites had nothing to do with me and everything to do with my guests. The Book Review podcast has been lucky to host some of the biggest names in literature, from Toni Morrison to John Updike to John Grisham to Colson Whitehead, and in nonfiction, writers ranging from Michael Lewis to Calvin Trillin to Isabel Wilkerson. I’ve spoken to public figures like Henry Kissinger, Samantha Power, Preet Bharara and Elizabeth Warren. Plus all of my colleagues, not just at the Book Review but from throughout The Times, including Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Wesley Morris and Frank Bruni, Thomas Friedman and James B. Stewart. These are all people who enlightened and entertained and informed me. All these guests tolerated my nosiest questions and often surprised me with their answers. They made me a better reader and a better listener. Herewith, in no particular order, 15 of my personal favorites.

April 19, 2019

It was an honor to have Robert Caro visit the newsroom and come into the studio, and I couldn’t help but take up the entire episode with our conversation. Caro had just written his short memoir, “Working,” and we talked about that. But having recently finished reading “Master of the Senate,” I had to ask him a number of questions about that book specifically and about Lyndon Johnson more generally. Naturally, we had to talk about Robert Moses as well. An unforgettable experience for me.

Having Isabel Wilkerson review Michelle Obama’s memoir was an editorial coup here at the Book Review, and Wilkerson’s essay-review met and exceeded our loftiest expectations. Wilkerson was perhaps uniquely positioned to delve into Obama’s family history given her own research and reporting on the Great Migration. As an admirer of Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” I jumped at the chance to discuss both that book and “Becoming,” and to tie the two together in this immensely rewarding conversation.

Sept. 18, 2020

I was already a fan of Ayad Akhtar’s work when he came on to the podcast, and I was about midway through his novel “Homeland Elegies” when we recorded; that can be a kind of sweet spot for me as a host between general curiosity on behalf of the listener and my own deeply personal interest as a reader. Akhtar had recently been named the president of PEN America, and though we attended the same college at the same time, we’d never met. I was riveted by what he was trying to do in this novel in particular and, more broadly, in his body of work and career. My other guest for this episode was Marc Lacey, then the National editor at The Times, who is a great colleague and had recently written his first book review for us. He and I talked about the two books he assessed, both about American leaders grappling with incidents of violence in their respective cities. Having presided over the reporting of those events, Lacey was well positioned to put both books into context.

June 12, 2020

Stephen Fry knows everything about everything, and it was a joy to talk to him about Greek mythology, especially since one of my children is a big fan of his new volumes retelling the myths. On a personal note, I was eager to talk to him about Oscar Wilde, whom he memorably played in the 1998 biopic “Wilde.” We ended up having a wide-ranging conversation about Fry’s approach to books and art. In this episode’s other segment, which was taped shortly after the killing of George Floyd, I spoke with two of my colleagues on the Books desk, Andrew LaVallee, the deputy editor for news and features on the Books desk, and Lauren Christensen, a preview editor at the Book Review, about books that deal with the subjects of race and racism. Books are such a great way to lend context and perspective to issues in the news, and I appreciate having colleagues whose breadth of reading makes a conversation like this rich with ideas for further reading.

March 6, 2020

This was the second time James McBride appeared on the podcast, both times in studio, and this was the last in-studio recording we did before The Times shut down for quarantine. I would say that’s what makes it extra special (I miss those in-person conversations), but the truth is, what made it special is McBride himself, who is always a thoughtful and energetic presence. Music is central to his writing (he is also a musician), and I was glad we were able to incorporate some music clips into the show.

Oct. 12, 2018

Michael Lewis is another repeat guest, and this visit was especially good because the subject of his book “The Fifth Risk,” which looked at various underreported departments in the federal government, was surprisingly fascinating. I was also thrilled to interview Tana French on the publication of her first stand-alone novel, “The Witch Elm,” which I’d recently finished after reading “The Trespasser,” part of her Dublin Murder Squad series. I was a newly converted fan, and our conversation did not disappoint.

Nov. 15, 2019

While preparing for my interview with Nicholas Buccola, I watched the famous James Baldwin-William F. Buckley debate from 1965. (Go ahead and watch it if you haven’t.) If you’ve seen that debate, you’ll know how remarkably contemporary the discussion feels and, at the same time, how very much it was of its era. The high level of engagement between the two men and their audience, and the uncompromising intellectual heights of their discussion, are electrifying to watch, even on a grainy computer screen. Buccola, who wrote about the debate in “The Fire Is Upon Us,” was a terrific guest. So was Saeed Jones, who spoke quite movingly about his deeply personal memoir, “How We Fight for Our Lives.”

It’s always a pleasure to have three-time guest David Sedaris on the podcast. On two of those occasions, conversation with him took up the entirety of the episode, but on this one, I also got to talk to Christopher Knowlton, the author of “Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West,” a subject I knew little about and found especially fascinating.

March 1, 2019

Patrick Radden Keefe was an excellent interview and a born podcast person, as anyone who listened to his extremely fun 2020 podcast “Wind of Change” knows. His book “Say Nothing,” which we discussed on this episode, is nowhere close to being a fun topic. It’s an account of the Troubles in Ireland told through the story of the abduction and murder of a mother of 10. It’s a testament to Keefe’s skill and range as a reporter and writer that he is able to write in multiple registers. Overall, this was a very moving episode for me, as the second guest, Frans de Waal, talked about “Mama’s Last Hug” and animal emotions. The video referenced in the title of his book still runs through my head on a regular basis.

Sept. 13, 2019

This episode was unusual, in that all of the guests were current or former reporters for The Times. You would think I’d have known the full story behind my colleagues Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s Harvey Weinstein reporting by that point, but I still learned more in this interview about their book, “She Said.” Also, though I’d known Jodi for years, before either of us were at The Times, the podcast was the first time I’d had a chance to talk to Megan. This was also the first time I’d ever spoken to Ian Urbina, my other guest on this episode; the reporting he did for “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier” was remarkable.

March 15, 2019

Some episodes are just a lot of fun, and this was one of them. I’ve long been a fan of the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. I’d seen him perform cabaret and always admired his creativity and sense of humor and versatility. I spoke to him about his memoir, “I.M.” I was also eager to talk to David McCraw about “Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts.” McCraw is the lead counsel for the newsroom at The Times, so someone I generally only encounter on emails about tricky and/or unpleasant topics. But anyone who works at The Times knows that McCraw is a former journalist himself and a fierce defender of the profession in general, and the conversation was as illuminating as I expected it would be.

June 3, 2016

I loved interviewing Noah Hawley about his big, fun thriller “Before the Fall” and about writing for TV (“Fargo”). Conversations with people who work in different forms of media are always a draw, since the Venn diagram of tools and skills needed for film screenplays versus journalistic investigations, or even fiction and nonfiction, isn’t always evident to me. I’m endlessly curious about where writers come up with their ideas, particularly for plot-driven thrillers and mysteries. Andrew Solomon is one of my favorite writers working today. His work is always so sensitive, insightful and nuanced, and to my mind, “Far From the Tree” is one of the best books ever written about family. On this episode, Solomon and I discussed his collected travel essays and journalism.

Feb. 26, 2016

There are few tougher topics than this, at least to my mind. Sue Klebold was the mother of Dylan, one of the two teenage shooters at Columbine in 1999. It took Klebold 15 years to write her memoir. Honestly, I was a bit nervous to talk to her, to be sensitive to her as well as to the victims of that shooting. But talking about really difficult subjects and trying to make sense of them is ultimately what journalists should do, and so I tried to do it as best I could here. I also spoke to Matthew Desmond on this episode; his book “Evicted” had gotten tremendous critical attention already, but at that early stage had yet to make the full impact on the conversation around poverty that it eventually would. This episode was from an earlier iteration of the podcast — longtime listeners will note the different intro music, the best-seller news segment and the lack of a What We’re Reading segment, which came later.

Aug. 9, 2019

One of the great benefits of working somewhere like The Times is my colleagues. On this episode, shortly after Toni Morrison’s death, I was able to convene not only book critics on my desk, Parul Sehgal and Dwight Garner, but also Wesley Morris, a semiregular guest on the podcast and the co-host of a podcast of his own, Still Processing. Wesley is one of the smartest cultural critics working today (fun fact: his first piece for The Times was for the Book Review), and someone I always learn from and always have fun talking to. This was one of those segments for which all I had to do was sit back and listen to other people talk; they carried it themselves. On this episode, I also got to speak with the journalist Sarah Broom about “The Yellow House,” a memoir telling the story of her childhood and a larger story of New Orleans history.

I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for George Packer as a writer, reporter and thinker, and was eager to learn more about how he approached writing a big biography of a big personality: Richard Holbrooke. I was intrigued by Packer’s unconventional approach, and by how he tackled the life story of someone who was certainly significant in global affairs but not a household name. I was also fascinated by the larger story Packer was engaging with: the end of a certain kind of roving diplomat and of a particular vision of diplomacy in the world. My second guest on this episode was Lori Gottlieb, who is a terrific speaker and interview. A former journalist, she went on to become a therapist, and then, of course, to write about it. I was interested in all the phases of her trajectory, and in the deeply personal way she wrote about herself in “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.”

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