The Best Books Of 2017: KERA's 'Think' Team Picks Its Favorites
If you're the type who dreams of being surrounded by piles and piles of books, you would love the Think Tank, the corner of the KERA building where the Think crew prepares each show.
Many of Krys Boyd's guests are promoting a book tied to the episode's discussion, so staffers get their hands on a lot of really smart, interesting titles.
They also try to make time to read non-work-related books, too.
"For being the producer of a show that’s particularly book-centric, I don’t get to read as many [non-Think books] as I’d like," producer Stephen Becker says. "So when I do get a chance to read for pleasure, I typically read for something that’s unlike my work reading."
Think staff members — Krys Boyd, Stephen Becker, Samantha Guzman, Lauren Silverman, Jeff Whittington and outgoing intern Miguel Perez — share which of the books from 2017 episodes hooked, challenged, stimulated and inspired them. They also reveal their favorite non-Think reads from the past year, too.
Host and Managing Editor of Think
» Favorite book from a 2017 episode: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My favorite book from an episode this year is actually a work of fiction. Lincoln in the Bardo is a luminous imagining of the president grieving the loss of his 11-year-old son, Willie, to typhoid fever in 1862, at the same time he is grappling with the loss of so many thousands of sons in combat on both sides of the Civil War.
The story is told in the voices of ghosts: those buried near Willie at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, who watch the heartbroken president enter his son’s crypt a number of times to hold his son’s lifeless body.
The ghosts have stories of their own—of the pain of enslavement and unrequited love, of squandered potential, and of memories that remain so strong they keep these poor souls trapped in a kind of middle place between life and afterlife.
I found this book deeply moving and hard to forget; I hope to read it again during my holiday break.
» Favorite non-Think read: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My favorite non-Think book was actually published late last year, but I came to it this year. It’s Trevor Noah’s memoir. Americans know Noah best as host of The Daily Show, but the events in this book take place long before he was famous. He was born to a black mother and white father in South Africa during Apartheid — when their interracial relationship was illegal.
Noah was raised with little money but great love by his maternal family — learning by trial and error to navigate life as a biracial child in a black township. It’s a fascinating perspective on survival and identity in a country that, like the United States, has a long history of racial division.
Note: I chose the audiobook version of Noah’s memoir, and I’m very glad I did. He speaks six languages — we hear bits of them throughout the book — and is a gifted mimic, which brings his mother and grandmother to life for the listener in really delightful ways.
Executive Producer of Think
Host of Anything You Ever Wanted to Know
» Favorite book from a 2017 episode: The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams lends her thoughtful, reverential and firm voice to the current debates over resource extraction, the environment and the future of public lands. This is a timely read from an important writer.
» Favorite non-Think read: Five-Carat Soul by James McBride
McBride spins reeling tales of young musicians finding their way, a toy collector on a quest, sinners grappling with the afterlife and President Abraham Lincoln in this collection of page-turners.
I also recommend McBride’s 2016 biography Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. He’s a great writer.
» Favorite book from a 2017 episode: Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman
John Hodgman is a 40-something white man thinking through what it means to enjoy the happy life that has come his way through a combination of privilege and work. If I grew out my moustache, we’d basically be the same person. And that’s why I was particularly struck by this honest recognition of the role that race, gender and social status play in living the lives we always hoped for.
On the Think show, black and Latino guests – particularly ones who are also women – will make the point that white people – particularly ones who are also men – need to understand that their backgrounds paved a smoother path to success. These guests aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of privilege. Just recognize the reality, how it differs from those of other people and how that gap might be bridged.
The audience for Vacationland is most likely white men like Hodgman – and me. But it’s the non-white guests on the Think show this year who helped me to read Hodgman’s story in the way I think he intended.
» Favorite non-Think read: The Force by Don Winslow
For being the producer of a show that’s particularly book-centric, I don’t get to read as many [non-Think books] I’d like. There’s too many magazines and newspapers to keep up with. So when I do get a chance to read for pleasure, I typically read for something that’s unlike my work reading.
The Force is a story of dirty cops riding heard over the northern part of Manhattan. They’ve got an understanding with the drug dealers that as long as no one oversteps his bounds, things will be OK.
Of course, things wind up not OK – and Sgt. Denny Malone is put in the catch-22 of protecting his family or his partners.
It reads like a movie, which is fitting since one is already in the works.
Associate Producer, Think and Anything You Ever Wanted to Know
Manager, KERA internship program
Sam gives us bonus favorites — fiction and nonfiction picks
» Favorite fiction read from a 2017 episode: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West follows a young couple living in an unnamed Muslim-majority country who fall in love despite the turmoil that continues to escalate in their homeland. When magic portals begin appearing all over the world, the couple decides to flee their home and take a chance by stepping through one of these doors and resettling in a new place.
Tales about migration often focus on the long journey people have from one place to another. Exit West flips that cliché narrative by making the journey no more than stepping through a door.
By doing this, the story can focus on the many struggles that face new immigrants when they arrive in a new place — like xenophobia or making new friends or learning a new language.
» Favorite non-fiction read from a 2017 episode: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
I feel like Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop should be required reading for every white person in America. If you ever thought for a minute you are “woke,” Dyson will make you think again. It’s easy to get people to acknowledge that racism exists, but turning that into action is much harder.
Dyson uses the “pull yourself up by the boot straps” argument that has often been used against people of color to challenge white people to do better when it comes to fighting racism.
People of color are often told to be less sensitive or work harder to overcome what they have gone through. Dyson asks white people to do the same by saying that white guilt or “white tears” can’t keep us from having these conversations. It’s a brilliant and searing call to action for white America.
» Favorite fiction non-Think read: The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
I was hooked from the beginning of Mahajan’s novel, which opens with an explosion at a Delhi market. The blast claims the lives of brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, while their friend Mansoor Ahmed manages to survive.
Mahajan expertly weaves the stories of several characters impacted by the bomb from the Khurana boys’ parents to Shockie, the terrorist who planted the bomb, to Mansoor, who is still dealing with physical effects from the bombing decades later.
At its core, the novel is about how one event can shape the lives of many. It left me thinking deeply about how our own experiences shape how we view the world – and about how easily those views can change under certain circumstances.
» Favorite non-fiction, non-Think read: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
I feel like women everywhere can relate to some part of Gay’s telling memoir. After being gang-raped at the age of 12, Gay ate as a way to cope. She writes: “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe.” I feel like as women, we are taught to lose weight in order to achieve some ideal body or arrive at a place where we accept our bodies for what they are. Hunger is not a fairy tale of weight loss. There isn’t even a happy ending here of self-acceptance. Gay’s honest telling of her ongoing struggle to accept her body balances what it’s like to be in between those two worlds.
Health, Science and Technology Reporter for KERA News
Primary backup host of Think and Texas Standard
» Favorite book from a 2017 episode: The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard Prum
Richard Prum takes us on a wild ride, from the physics of bird feathers to the sex lives of ducks. His book about the evolution of birds reveals a lot about why humans look the way we do as well.
» Favorite non-Think read: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
A short book that cuts deep. After reading it, you might not remember the old man’s name — the narrator only says it once — but you won’t be able to forget the story. I still can't get the image of him, lying on the floor of his wooden skiff (with a fishing line digging through the flesh of his back) out of my mind. The old man is completely obsessed with catching a single elusive fish; he knows this mission might be his last.
» Favorite book from a 2017 episode: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s kind of storytelling is probably the only reason I still read actual, physical books. She tackles drug addiction, poverty and the injustice of the justice system through the lens of a complicated, broken family using supernatural elements that amplify the realities they’re living.
» Favorite non-Think read: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
After reading Ward’s novel, I was in the mood for some more magic realism, so I revisited one of my favorite books. I last read this in high school, and the story continues to have a humbling impact on how I understand the idea of family and one’s place among past and future generations. It’s kind of a laborious read but worthwhile, in my opinion.