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6 of the best books to curl up with from 2015

December 23, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
What were the must-read books of 2015? Jeffrey Brown gets favorite picks from Daniel Pink, business writer and author of "Drive," and novelist Jennifer Close, author of "The Smart One."
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GWEN IFILL: Now back to the NewsHour Bookshelf and a look back at this year in books. And we go back to Jeff, who recently sat down with two bestselling authors, novelist Jennifer Close and business writer Daniel Pink, at the Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics and Prose.

JEFFREY BROWN: Daniel Pink, Jennifer Close, welcome.

JENNIFER CLOSE, Author, “The Smart One”: Thank you.

DANIEL PINK, Author, “Drive”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dan, why don’t you start? What do you have for us?

DANIEL PINK: Well I selected three books, works of nonfiction that belongs in everybody’s best-of-the-year list, but that didn’t get the attention they deserve.

I want to begin with this book right here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’re going for not enough attention.

DANIEL PINK: Not enough attention, things that flew under the radar. This is a book called “Unfair.”

It’s by a guy named Adam Benforado. He’s a professor of law at Temple University, and he wrote a book about the criminal justice system, and his argument is that the criminal justice system is based on assumptions about human behavior and neuroscience that just aren’t true. And that means that the criminal justice system doesn’t mete out justice.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how science intersects with criminal justice?

DANIEL PINK: I will give you an example of it. We rely, in criminal trials, on eyewitness testimony. The evidence is very clear eyewitness testimony is useless. We ask jurors to decide whether someone is lying or not. Human beings can’t detect whether people are lying any more than a chance encounter.

We have people in prison because they have confessed to crimes. It turns out false confessions are very easy to get. This is an alarming book, it’s an important book, and I think it’s great book for people interested in the justice system and for the lawyer in your life.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Jennifer, what do you have for us today?

JENNIFER CLOSE: My first book is “A Little Life,” which actually got quite a bit of attention this year. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and The Man Booker. And everyone that read it said amazing things.

They said, it’s amazing, and then they also said, and it’s heartbreaking. And so that’s why I didn’t pick it up right away. I just wasn’t sure I was ready to be heartbroken.

JEFFREY BROWN: The author is Hanya Yanagihara.

JENNIFER CLOSE: Yanagihara, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was kind of a sleeper, and it built and built and built in terms of popularity.

JENNIFER CLOSE: It was. It was. It started off a little slower.

And then I think, the more people read it, the more they wanted to recommend it and talk about it. And it’s great. When I picked it up, I didn’t put it down for three days. I was carrying it around with me. And it’s huge, so that says a lot.

And it’s about love and friendship and trauma. And the characters in the story stay with you in a way that doesn’t happen often. I have thought about them, I think, every day since I finished the book, which to me is a sign of a really special novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s one way of judging it.

JENNIFER CLOSE: That’s one way of judging things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

All right, Dan, number two?

DANIEL PINK: Number two is less hefty than Jennifer’s book.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see a theme, a pattern emerging, right?

DANIEL PINK: Yes, my short attention span.

This is a book called “The Speechwriter” by a fellow with the unlikely name of Barton Swaim. He was an academic in South Carolina and decided that he wanted to work in politics. And he eventually got a job as a speechwriter for the governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, who became well known for walking the Appalachian Trail. And so this book…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, yes.

DANIEL PINK: Well, no.

JEFFREY BROWN: You should explain that. Right?

DANIEL PINK: He kind of disappeared from his office for about a week or two, and complications ensued.

It turned out he was having an affair. Regardless, that’s not central to this book. What’s central to this book is that Swaim talks about his experience working in politics, what it’s like to write speeches, what it’s like to be on the front lines, in the trenches of politics.

And this book, more than any book that I have read in a very long time, really reveals the ground truth of what it’s like day to day to be in the political maw. This book is by — it’s a great read. It’s hilarious. It’s sometimes sad. It is, to me, by far the best book on politics I have read in many, many years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wow. OK, that’s a high recommendation.

JENNIFER CLOSE: He sold it to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sold.

JENNIFER CLOSE: I’m adding it to my Christmas list.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jennifer?

JENNIFER CLOSE: So my next book is “In the Unlikely Event” by Judy Blume.

JEFFREY BROWN: Judy Blume, a very famous author.

JENNIFER CLOSE: So I grew up reading Judy Blume. I love her. I think I read every one of her books multiple times.

So when I heard she had a new one coming out, I was beyond excited. This book is based on real events that took place in the 1950s. There was a three-month period where three planes crashed in the same town of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

So the book centers around that, but it’s a Judy Blume book. So, it’s about so much more. It’s about…

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means what to you?

JENNIFER CLOSE: It’s about young love and friendships and the relationships between parents and children.

And her characters are just so alive, just like all of her characters are. And what’s interesting to me is I gave this book to my mom when it first came out, and what she appreciated about it was how Judy Blume captures the 1950s. She writes about the clothes they wear and the hairstyles and the way the finished basements looked. And her details are so vivid and wonderful.

And I just — I can’t imagine a better book to curl up with over the holidays than this one.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m assuming she influenced you as a writer.

JENNIFER CLOSE: She did very much. I wrote her a fan letter.

(LAUGHTER)

DANIEL PINK: Did she answer?

JENNIFER CLOSE: She did.

DANIEL PINK: Wow.

JENNIFER CLOSE: Yes. It’s wonderful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dan, number three?

DANIEL PINK: Well, my final book is again another relatively slim volume. It’s a book called “The Light of the World.” It’s a memoir by Elizabeth Alexander. Elizabeth Alexander is a poet.

She is about as famous as a poet can be in the United States. She actually wrote and read a poem at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. And this book is really a memoir of loss. You know, she had this incredible thing happen to her, where, in the space of literally a few weeks, she met a man who she fell madly in love with, and decided to get married.

This man — she’s a poet, she’s an Ivy League professor. He was an Eritrean chef. Fell madly in love, and in a blink, they were married, and had two kids, and they led this really wonderful life. And then, at age 50, just a few days after his 50th birthday, her husband, Ficre, dropped dead on a treadmill from a heart attack.

And this is a memory — this is a memoir of her reckoning with this loss, but also celebrating the life that she led, and also really, in this really glorious way, putting a light on these sort of day-to-day moments she had with her sons and with her husband.

As we have already revealed, I have a short attention span. It’s hard for me to read for very, very long periods of time. This — I read nearly this entire book in one sitting. It’s that riveting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I spoke to her for our program. And, of course, it’s also about the creative process and how poetry fits into coping, in a way, with what happens, tragedy.

DANIEL PINK: And it’s about the search for — when you experience such incredible grief and incredible loss, you’re looking for ways — you’re looking for somebody to hang on to. And for her, it is language, it is food. There are recipes in this book. And it’s just really just a glorious, riveting book.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jennifer, last book for this part of our segment?

JENNIFER CLOSE: My last book is a book of short stories called “Single, Carefree, Mellow” by Katherine Heiny.

This book came out in February, and I have lost count how times I have recommend it to people. And I would say, even if you don’t think you’re a short story person, even if you think you only like novels, which many people do, just to pick this one up and give it a try.

She’s a brilliant writer. She has lines that are so sharp and unexpected that I laughed out loud over and over again while reading this book. But there are also parts that are really moving. And I think short stories are great for the holidays, when you’re traveling and on a plane, or surrounded by family maybe that interrupts you when you’re reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: Short escapes.

JENNIFER CLOSE: Right, when you have little snippets of time. I think it’s a great one to pick up.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to continue our discussion with more books online. And we’re also going to have a list of the books we’re talking about here. And I’m going to invite the audience to join us there later.

For now, Daniel Pink, Jennifer Close, thanks so much.

DANIEL PINK: Thanks, Jeff.

JENNIFER CLOSE: Thank you.

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