What to Read Next (Free Edition): Beowulf + interview with Evan Axelbank
Welcome to the first edition of the new pared down version of What to Read Next! Regardless of whether or not you ever subscribe to the paid version, I’m really glad to have you here and thankful for your support.
We’ll do a bite-sized book review, a link for your weekend, a preview of The List, and an interview with my friend Evan Axelbank, who’s a reader and podcaster extraordinaire.
Let’s jump right in—hope you enjoy it. And don’t forget to let me know what you’re reading. I love to hear.
Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley
The real strength of Maria Dahvana Headley’s new and modernized translation Beowulf is the long introduction that describers her reasoning for taking on the ur-text of English and her methodology for the language she chose. Whereas previous translators have assumed a rather proper tone, Headley took the decidedly different stance that this was more akin to the type of story being told by the guy at the bar who’s already had a few. The very first word of the book is “Bro!”
The tale itself: I didn’t love Beowulf. It’s a fun action story, for sure, but without much character growth or movement. That said, Headley does such interesting things with the language that it’s well worth reading. (Helps that it’s a quick read, too.) Each page brings a bit of a linguistic surprise and there are even plenty of laughs along the way—which is not something you’ll find in other translations.
Here’s what subscribers got this week:
my full review of Beowulf
my review of Black Iron Mercy by Eric Schlehein (a Civil War novel)
The List: 9 books for Earth Day reading
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A Link for Your Weekend
“Grandpa Style: Why 20-Somethings Are Dressing Like Senior Citizens.” This article is just really fun. It won’t make you a better person, but it will make you smile. It might be behind a WSJ paywall, but I was able to read it on my iPad without an account.
WRINKLES ARE IN FASHION. Not the ones linen trousers acquire, but the fine lines that accrue on an elderly individual’s face. Lately, the fashion world is celebrating those 60-and-up for their style.
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A Few Bookish Questions With Evan Axelbank
Evan Axelbank, a news reporter by day, is a fellow POTUS books nerd who I met on Twitter. We struck up a correspondence and I’ve been excited to see his reading turn into into the wonderful podcast Axelbank Reports History and Today. He took the time to answer a few questions about some of his favorite books—be prepared to add to your reading list!
1. Your podcast has a simple premise: conversations with today's best non-fiction authors. So what are a few of the great non-fiction books you've read? (I know you're stingy with your 5-star ratings.) Are there any that really jump-started your love for well-written non-fic?
I will never forget reading Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro. I had already developed a love of reading, but I never imagined it would become life-changing until I opened that book my sophomore year at Ithaca College. (I should say my brilliant politics professor, Marty Brownstein, gets the credit for assigning it!) I have put the Caro-LBJ series into its own league. I know them chapter and verse. Aside from Caro, I could also mention the Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough books, but they get plenty of ink. So my other favorites are, City of Dreams by Tyler Anbinder, which explains how NYC, my hometown, became a world of immigrants. April 1865 by Jay Winik is stunning, as is Frederick Douglass by David Blight. The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol is focused on disparities in education, but it will make you stop and think hard about the overall difficulties our nation faces.
I have given only about twenty "five-star" ratings on Goodreads, out of around 390 ranked. So the air is thin up there, and those all pass the test.
2. Like me, you have a special affinity for the presidential biography. I know there may be some overlap with the above question, but what are a couple of your favorite POTUS bios?
Let’s start with The Story by David Maraniss, who I had on the podcast. He traced former President Obama's roots across the world, visiting Hawaii, Kenya and Indonesia. Beautifully written and perfectly detailed. Let’s also say The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. She also just joined the podcast. To understand not only Jefferson, but America, you have to know this book well. And then let’s finish with the Teddy Roosevelt series by Edmund Morris. The prose is unlike any I have read. TR is such a force of nature, and it really does take three volumes to absorb him.
I have so so so many more. If any of your readers want to reach out for more recommendations, please have them do so!
3. I know you mostly read non-fiction, but are there novels that have stuck with you over the years?
I am embarrassed to say that the last time I read a fiction book was my freshman year of college. I believe it was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which I loved because I knew the area in which it is set. I am aware I should be reading at least some fiction, but I doubt that will change anytime soon. I just love non-fiction too much!
4. You're a sports guy and loyal to your NYC teams. Have any great sports books you can recommend?
Absolutely. If you love baseball and how it holds a mirror to our society, check out, They Said it Couldn't be Done by Wayne Coffey. It tells the story of the Miracle Mets and how they captivated New York in 1969. It also explains the upheaval the city and nation were going through. The moon landing, Vietnam, racism, etc. I would also recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin's Wait Till Next Year which is a biography of the 1950s Dodgers as seen through the lens of her own childhood in Brooklyn. It makes me think of my beloved Aunt Tsippy, who always said, "We rooted the Dodgers up from nothing."
5. What are you reading and enjoying now? What's next on your list?
Most of my reading now is preparation for my podcast. Since I am having the brilliant Glenn Stout on soon, I just finished his new book, Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid, which is about a gangster husband and wife who paved the way for our pop culture to create characters—and even followings—out of criminals. Great book. I am also getting started with Nine Days by Stephen and Paul Kendrick, which is the story of how the Kennedy campaign cultivated a relationship with Martin Luther King, and how it paved the way for JFK's election in 1960, and, they argue, changed American politics forever. I should also mention that—given the racial justice moment we are living through, where we are all trying to understand our society—I would recommend Koritha Mitchell's book, From Slave Cabins to the White House. She explores the concept of Black citizenship and how it has been cultivated, as she says, "from scratch." (I also had her on the podcast.) Lastly, I will mention that I am really enjoying Barack Obama's autobiography. I am halfway through, but it is easily the best book I have read by a president. Introspective, measured, and finely written.
Thanks for reading, and for the time and inbox space. It means a lot.
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