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Smart Talk is a daily, live, interactive program featuring conversations with newsmakers and experts in a variety of fields and exploring a wide range of issues and ideas, including the economy, politics, health care, education, culture, and the environment.  Smart Talk airs live every week day at 9 a.m. on WITF’s 89.5 and 93.3.

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Host: Scott LaMar

Smart Talk: Books that would make great gifts

Written by Scott LaMar, Smart Talk Host/Executive Producer | Dec 15, 2014 11:45 AM
woman reading book in front of fire with cat looming 600 x 340.jpg

What to look for on Smart Talk Tuesday, December 16, 2014:

It’s become a holiday tradition on Smart Talk and one of the favorite shows of the year – books as gifts.

Books have always been a thoughtful and treasured gift.  Almost everyone enjoys and can appreciate a book as a present -- whether it is fiction, a novel, non-fiction, poetry, or a how-to book.

On Tuesday's Smart Talk, we'll discuss the books that would make great gifts.  They may or may not be new or on the bestseller lists, but our panel will recommend and describe several titles to think about.


Catherine Lawrence, Todd Dickinson, and Jon Walker

Joining us will be Catherine Lawrence, co-owner of the Mid Town Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg and a writer herself, Todd Dickinson, co-owner of Aaron's Books in Lititz, and Jon Walker, who blogs book reviews at

We'd like to hear your suggestions as well.  What books do you think your friends or loved-ones would enjoy or what books are on your wish list this year?

Jon Walker's recommendations:

For my son the laser scientist -- How we Got to Now, by Stephen Johnson.  An exploration of the secret untold history behind important innovations and objects of modern day life -- from refrigeration to standardized time to eyeglass lenses.  

It's also a six part series on PBS and can be viewed online.

For my daughter-in-law the Bob Marley fan -- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marion James.  A novel told through multiple perspectives that revolve around the 1976 assassination attempt on the legendary singer Bob Marley in Jamaica.  It's one of the NYTime's most notable books of 2014.

For my daughter who works for a local non-profit trying to help the underserved -- On the Run, Fugitive Life in An American City, by Alice Groffman.  It's about the war on drugs and how it has failed to stop drug usage but has succeeded in helping to destabilize urban American life. On the NYTime's most notable list, and gets 4.3 stars on Amazon. People find it riveting, moving and brilliantly written.

For my daughter the inner-city High School English teacher -- Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jackqueline Woodson.  I heard her interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air and thought immediately of my daughter who enjoys poetry and who has a lot of kids of color as students.  It's a fictionalized memoir written in verse about Woodson's childhood in rural South Carolina and Columbus, Ohio.  This one's on everybody's TOP LISTS, including being a National Book Award finalist.  

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat is a buoyant romp. A tonic for a jaded soul. It is set during the Great Depression and chronicles the lives and trials of the University of Washington’s eight-man rowing crew, a motley group of underdogs who triumph in the end.  Who’d ever think in our age of big-time televised sports that there could have been a time in our history – and not so long ago – when the varsity crew on a college campus drew more ink and fans than the football team? Well, that was the deal back in the first half of the last century.  The whole country was into crew.

Besides chronicling the sport’s rich and illustrious past, Brown really gets into the intricacies of it.  Whenever I thought of a guy who would consider going out for crew I imagined a strong, rather dull-witted fellow too uncoordinated to make the football or basketball team. Put eight of these muscle bound automatons in a shell with a pipsqueak to yell “Stroke!” and you have all the ingredients for success. Boy, was I wrong!  Crew is complicated. The sport requires a whole range of physical and mental skills; it has as many strategic nuances as a squeeze play at the plate, and as much age-old mysticism as you’ll find in the proportions of a baseball diamond.  Anyone with an interest in sports will enjoy learning about crew.

This book is also a great read for anyone who enjoys a good human-interest story.  You’ll love these gritty hicks from Washington!  In spite of being slammed much harder by the Great Depression than the toffee-nosed boys they compete against from Cal or the Ivies, they find what it takes to prevail.  It’s fun to watch them stick it Hitler in the ’36 Olympics too!  

One More Thing, Stories and other Stories

By B.J. Novak

I may be the only American who hasn’t ever watched the TV show The Office and so I had never heard of B.J. Novak.  I’ll bet he’s totally funny on that show because his book One More Thing, Stories and other Stories is flat hilarious.  It’s also the perfect book for bedtime reading.  It’s an eclectic compilation of short stories of varying lengths that go down as easily as a sleeve of Oreos. As the title implies, one story is never enough. There’s always room for one more, so unless you set a strict time limit when you pick up the book at night you could easily find yourself binging until dawn.

Novak’s ear for contemporary pop culture is amazing. Not only is he pitch perfect he’s capable of detecting an amazingly wide range of frequencies.  Whether he’s writing about a summer camp for gifted teens, or the best ambulance driver the city has ever known, or the man who fell in love with a sex robot, or the pleasure of being right, or about closure, or dark matter, or the guy who posted pictures of everything he ate, Novak stirs in just the right blend of humor, irony, absurdity, pathos and sweetness.

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is one of those really smart guys who see the world from a slightly different angle than most other people you know. What the Dog Saw is a collection of his highly thought-provoking essays – many of which first appeared in The New Yorker Magazine. One of the chapters of particular interest to me is True Colors, Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America, which chronicles the way two common consumer products – Clairol’s “Nice ‘n Easy” and L’Oreal’s “Preference”  – were positioned when they first came on the market in the 1960’s and how they went on to make a profound impact on our entire culture.

The guys at Clairol and L’Oreal tapped into the insecurities felt by millions of American women and in a few decades they not only changed the way a large majority of them look, they also changed the way they think of themselves. In the 1950’s only 7% of American women got their hair color from a bottle.  By the 1970’s that number had increased to 40%. Today, somewhere around 75% of American women don’t feel confident about themselves until they color their hair, and in my age group of Baby Boomers – the generation that refuses to ever grow old – it’s closer to 90%!

In this essay, Gladwell reminds us of just how powerful slick marketing techniques once were and continue to be. These days, in addition to traditional mass media outlets, marketers have all kinds of new tools at their disposal to get to us.  Every time we “like” something on Facebook or visit a website, we give them all the information they need to influence the way we choose to spend our money and think about ourselves.

In his essay, John Rock’s Error, Gladwell talks about developing the Birth Control Pill and about the hoops John Rock jumped through to get it approved by the FDA while at the same time attempting to placate the Catholic Church.  His strategy was to describe the Pill as a completely natural way to assure a woman’s reproductive health.  To reinforce this notion he developed it to be dosed and taken in a way that would result in women continuing to have their naturally occurring monthly periods.  Turns out that what’s bad for women is not the Pill, but the high number of periods modern-day women experience over the course of their lifetimes. There is now a growing body of scientific evidence that shows it would have been much healthier and from an evolutionary standpoint far more natural to develop a Pill that results in only one or two periods per year.  Had Rock taken this approach, he not only might have gotten the Pope on board, he could have helped to reduce a whole range of life-threatening and infertility-causing diseases.

In Connecting the Dots, Gladwell points out the inherent flaws in both highly centralized and widely de-centralized management systems, and how our adherence to one or the other comes and goes like the swing of a pendulum. He uses the CIA as a case in point. The Central Intelligence Agency was created after Pearl Harbor, which many said was caused by a de-centralized intelligence community failing to “connect the dots.”  In the decades following Pearl Harbor, the American intelligence community discovered that too much centralization was leading to “group think” and disasters like the Bay of Pigs. Over time all kinds of competing intelligence agencies were created to avoid that sort of problem.  We were sure this was working better until 9/11, and now we’re all hot to trot on centralizing everything.

Here now are some of the books on my list for 2015, chosen from the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2014, the 2014 National Book Award finalists, NPR’s website and recommendations from friends.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

The paths of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy converge during World War Two in enemy-occupied Saint-Malo.  The New York Times reviewer calls it “hauntingly beautiful,” intricate and complicated, very lyrical yet highly readable.  It’s also a National Book Award finalist.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

If this novel by David Mitchell is only half as good as his Cloud Atlas, I’m all for it!  The Bone Clocks sounds like an equally mind-blowing flight into multiple times and dimensions. 

Let Me be Frank with You: a Frank Bascombe Book, by Richard Ford.

I heard Ford talk about this book with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  It sounds hilarious.  One passage he read aloud about the pitfalls of growing old had me howling.  I haven’t read Ford’s so-called Frank Bascombe Books, but I did read his novel Canada, which was terrific.  

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

This is another of the National Book Award finalists.  It’s about a young woman with a troubled background coming to a small town in Iowa to marry the local minister and make a new start in life.  Gilead, which I believe is Robinson’s first novel and set in the same town with many of the same main characters, is one of my all time favorites. It won her the Pulitzer Prize. Robinson gives the reader a lot of interesting religious philosophy without being too “churchy.”

The Map Thief, by Michel Blanding

I picked this one by going to the NPR’s website and using their Book Concierge app.

The filters I used were “NPR Staff Picks,”  “Biography and Memoir,” and “Eye-Opening Reads.”  This narrowed the field of recommended books from a couple hundred down to a dozen or so, and The Map Thief popped out at me.  It’s about E. Forbes Smiley III, an esteemed rare-map dealer who turned to a life of crime, stealing, forging and selling ancient maps.  In the course of following this guy’s life you learn a lot about maps. I love maps, and can’t wait to read this book! 

Todd Dickinson's recommendations:

"Station Eleven" by Emily St John Mandel

A National Book Award Finalist, Station Eleven is a breathtaking novel about loss, fame, love, and so much more. It begins with a famous actor in his last stage appearance, and moves to several characters whose life he had affected, including an ex-wife, his best friend, and a young woman in a near-future post-apocalyptic world travelling from village to village with a troupe of Shakespearean actors. Mandel's previous novels include "Last Night in Montreal" and "The Lola Quartet".

 "The Martian" by Andy Weir

One member of the first manned mission to Mars has been left behind, and he has to figure out how to survive until help arrives - with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive. This is a unique action/adventure novel with plenty of science, math, and humor. The Martian is Weir's debut novel

 "Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King" by Mike Pitts

Mike Pitts follows one of this century's most important archaeological finds: the discovery of King Richard III's remains under a parking lot in Leicester. He weaves together the long and seemingly impossible search for Richard with the story of the king's still-controversial life and famous death on Bosworth Field. Pitts is an archaeologist and journalist, and he currently serves as editor of Britain's leading archaeological magazine, British Archaeology

 "As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride" by Cary Elwes, with Joe Layden

Actor Cary Elwes revisits his most famous role -- Westley in "The Princess Bride" and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the beloved film that was originally considered a box office flop..It includes exclusive photographs, and interviews with his now-famous costars, as well as screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner. 

 "Brick Greek Myths: The Stories of Heracles, Athena, Pandora, Poseidon, and Other Ancient Heroes of Mount Olympus" by Amanda Brack, Monica Sweeney, and Becky Thomas

This is the latest in a wonderful series of books from Skyhorse Publishers using LEGO bricks to re-tell famous stories. This volume has 1,000 color photographs illustrating famous Greek myths through elaborate LEGO-based scenes. Others in the series include Brick Fairy Tales, Brick Dracula and Frankenstein, and the bestselling Brick Bible.

 "El Deafo" by Cece Bell

El Deafo is a graphic memoir aimed for ages 8 to 11, but appropriate and entertaining for all ages, both child and adult. Bell reflects on her childhood as the only deaf child in her school, and being made obviously different by the bulky hearing aid she had strapped to her chest. Her story has humor, pain, awkwardness, and triumph.

 "Little Elliot, Big City" written and illustrated by Mike Curato

Elliot the elephant is probably our favorite new picture book character this year. He's very small, and that makes living in a big city a real challenge. Then he meets Mouse, who is even smaller. This book, filled with stunning illustrations and just a few key words, is Curato's debut.

Catherine Lawrence's recommendations:

1. Romance and women's fiction author MEGAN HART.

 Her latest novel is Lovely Wild.

 2. Thriller author and Pentagon veteran DON HELIN.

 His latest novel is Secret Assault (the second Zack Kelly thriller)

 3. Young-Adult Sci-Fi & Fantasy author E. C. MYERS.

 His latest techno-thriller is The Silence of Six.

 4. Dance critic turned novelist KATHRYN CRAFT.

 Her debut novel is The Art of Falling, about an injured dancer.

 5. Longtime family lawyer turned romance novelist GRACE BURROWES.

 Offers Jane-Austen era delights in What a Lady Wants for Christmas.

 * History of the places around us:

 6. MICHAEL LISICKY, Shop Pomeroy's First (The History Press)

 7. MATTHEW CHRISTOPHER, Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences

 (photographic book)

 * Contemporary issues: Racial Reconciliation (Among the Midtown

 Scholar Bookstore's best-sellers)

 8. MICHELLE ALEXANDER, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age

 of Colorblindness

 9. LISA BLOOM, Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon

 Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It

 * If you're planning on seeing the new movie version of Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods this holiday season, here's a Young Adult offering for you:

 10. Polly Shulman, THE GRIMM LEGACY, historical fantasy adventure.

Scott LaMar recommendations (from authors we spoke with on Smart Talk in 2014:

Murder in the Stacks by David DeKok...story on an unsolved murder in the library at Penn State.

Thru the Perilous Fight: The Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel...150 years after Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became The Star Spangled Banner, the United States was in real danger of not surviving the British in the War of 1812

Big Money by Kenneth spending on political campaigns but most notably political causes is influencing America

When They Were Boys by Larry Kane...the strugglesof The Beatles before they came to America and became world famous by the legdenary Philadelphia broadcast journalist and only American reporter to follow the Beatles on every stop of their first American tour in 1964.

The Burglary by Betty Medsger...the story of the 1971 burglary of the FBI office in Media, PA in 1971 that made public secret surveillance and techniques being used by the FBI.

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  • James Kling img 2014-12-16 08:08

    For anyone interested in food-related issues (nutrition, sustainable farming, the environment), I have three strong recommendations. "Cows Save the Planet" by Judith Schwartz examines the complexity of climate change through the lens of regenerating grasslands, and how raising cows and other ruminants may restore soil health and restore carbon and water cycle health. "The Big Fat Surprise" by Nina Teicholz provides a narrative to 50 years of confusing and often contradictory advice, and shows why nearly everything we've been told about what to eat and why is wrong. (Eat the egg with the yolks!) Finally, vegetarian and environmental activist Nicolette Hahn Niman, who married a beef rancher, takes down the argument that raising livestock is bad for the planet, with lawyerly precision in "Defending Beef." This last book is one that I purchased 10 signed copies of and am gifting to friends and farmers whom we buy food from!

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-16 09:45

    Kristen emailed:
    I just finished Phil Klay's Redeployment, a collection of short stories about the war in Iraq. It was powerful, and moving, sometimes hard to read, but I feel all should read to learn just what our troops go through. This book will stick with me for a long time.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-16 09:52

    Sarah emailed:
    I bought this book after hearing about it several weeks ago on SmartTalk. It is a wonderful gift! Do your local booksellers have it in stock because I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in history, Abraham lincoln.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-16 09:55

    Manuel emailed:

    I have literati friends, who have come to love and enjoy the new breed of classic mashups.

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
    Sense and Sensibilities and Sea Monsters

    And the like. It is fun look at great classics.

    For the foodies, I love Thug Kitchen.

  • Lisa img 2014-12-16 10:00

    Recommended read for football nuts, especially those living in "divided" households in central PA: Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles - The "Steagles" - Saved Pro Football During World War II by Matthew Algeo

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-16 10:01

    Pat emailed:

    Iranian-American author Azar Nafisi joins us to talk about the state of literature and the humanities in the US. Using the great American works Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she argues the greatest danger to the literary arts is not a totalitarian regime, but the "intellectual indolence" of the public. Nafisi says it matters because literature is more than entertainment; it is a guide to a better society. Her new book is called The Republic of Imagination : America in Three Books.

    Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-16 10:04

    Cynthia emailed:
    My favorite book is The Grapes of Wrath. This book left me wanting to know more about the Joad family, and it broke my heart because of the treatment of the people during that time. A great read to learn about compassion and how to treat our fellow man.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-16 12:54

    John recommends...
    The Philosopher and the Wolf - Mark Rowlands

    Man & pet Wolf bond - Lessons from the wild on love, death and happiness.

    Reaching back in our evolution before the scheming ape!