Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: Welcome to “Art Works,” the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Jo Reed: As so many people around the country are told to stay at home during this health crisis, uncertainty and isolation can often be the emotions that dominate our lives, but art has the ability to both take us to the outer reaches of imagination and reveal ourselves to ourselves. For me, books most particularly, mark that space. It’s the art form I turn most often to for solace, for understanding, for pure escapism, and for transcendence. Books connect us to imaginary worlds, to the lives of people we’ll never meet, and with other people who have turned to these same books as friends. So thinking about what I was reading, curious about what other people were picking up, and eager for guidance about what to put on my reading list, I reached out to Amy Stolls. She’s the Director of Literary Arts at the NEA. I wanted to know what she was reading and what books she could suggest to see us through these difficult times. But before we get to the conversation, a word. Like many of you, I’m working from home, so the podcast is going to sound a bit different as we work out different ways of recording. So bear with us as we work out the kinks. Now, here’s my conversation with Amy Stolls.
Jo Reed: Here we are at home.
Amy Stolls: Our separate homes.
Jo Reed: Our separate homes.
Amy Stolls: More than six feet apart.
Jo Reed: Definitely more than six feet apart, and we’re looking at the world outside wondering what is going on, and at the same time there it’s also this time of great interiority, because we are at home, and I think art can really speak to this moment, but especially books. So I wanted to talk to you about what books you are turning to, pulling off your bookshelves, looking forward to reading.
Amy Stolls: I love that you used that term “turning to,” because I can’t say that I’m actually reading <laughs> so much these days, and when I read, my mind is not always right there.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Amy Stolls: But I hope to get back to it. Mostly that’s because, you know, I have kids, so they’re home. So I’m doing work in the evenings and all sorts of ways that I can find the time, but also, I’m talking to folks in the literary arts field, and I would like to acknowledge the hardships folks are going through right now. I mean, the bookstores, independent bookstores, are laying off staff and closing and publishers don’t have an outlet without events and conferences, and authors can’t do events and there’s a lot of anxiety, and it’s just such a hard time. So I’m so thankful for all of them who have helped put these books on my shelves, and I feel lucky that I have books on my shelves, but they’re struggling right now.
Jo Reed: Yeah, they most certainly are. All the arts are struggling, and I have been also so impressed by how much artists are still reaching out.
Amy Stolls: Yes, many are. I mean, it’s nice to see so many authors, particularly children’s authors, doing readings online, and other authors working from home and teachers trying to work with students, and I think books and literature in general can offer such solace and in many ways entertainment through this difficult time, and so I feel kind of lucky about that, to be part of that and talking about books and being with these characters, and I don’t feel so alone in my home. I’m looking at my bookshelf. I’m amidst a lot of characters right here.
Jo Reed: That’s exactly the way I feel. I feel <laughs> like I’m with my friends.
Amy Stolls: Yeah.
Jo Reed: So what books are you turning to right now, Amy?
Amy Stolls: Well, because I have two boys, ages 8 and 11, I’m trailing to a lot of my children’s books.
Jo Reed: Well, why don’t we start with children’s books?
Amy Stolls: I collect them. I have so many, and so I would love to talk about a whole lot of them, but I did pull one off the shelf that I thought is perfect for these times. In fact, that’s what I was thinking about as I-- preparing for our conversation, and thinking-- looking at my bookshelf and thinking about books that I really want to sit with for a bit because it speaks to these weeks that we’re in, this difficult time, and one of the books that I pulled off for my kids was-- is called “At the Same Moment, Around the World,” by, you know, I’m going to mess up his name. Clotilde Perrin? But it’s a beautiful book and she’s a beautiful illustrator, and what I love about it is that it visits with at the same moment around the world, each page goes from country to country. So at one moment Sofia in Bulgaria, it’s eight o’clock, and what is she doing? She’s chasing after her school bus, and at the same time, you know, in Baghdad, Iraq, it’s nine o’clock and in the morning and Yasmine is, what is she doing? And so it goes through the block, and at the end it includes a map, so it can connect all of the kids in their time zones at the exact moment, and what I love about that for this moment is from knowing that my kids are stuck at home and teaching them about how they’re not the only ones, you know, and that there are kids across the globe who are stuck at home. So let’s think about that, and who are these kids? And in this very moment, who might be doing what? It’s a really great way of launching a conversation. That’s what books are good-- one of the things they’re great for doing.
Jo Reed: Well, it’s interesting, because, of course, you had sent me a list about books that you had pulled off the shelves, and what occurred to me was “At the Same Moment, Around the World,” in some ways, it’s so connected to the book here by Richard McGuire, because if Clotilde Perrin takes one moment and goes around the world and sees what every kid is doing, “Here” takes one place and goes through time.
Amy Stolls: Right. Yes. I pulled that off because I love this book and it is called “Here,” by Richard McGuire, and I am in the literary arts, but this is a wordless, mostly wordless book, with a couple of little dialogue pieces here and there, but it takes instead of one-- you’re exactly right-- instead of one point in time, it’s one place, and it goes through thousands of years, imagines that one place through thousands of years, in the past and in the future, and oftentimes on the same page, you know. So where you’re living in your home, where you’re sheltering in place right now, could also have been a swampland or a forest, you know, and perhaps in the future might be the bottom of a mass of water. I love the concept of that too, that what books also do is that put you in context. You know, when I was younger, this-- I used to, you know, read books in this way and go through this existential angst and think-- it would freak me out because I’d say, “I’m just-- I’m nothing. What is the meaning of life? I’m just this tiny thi--” and now that I’m older, I think it provides some sort of calm for me. Like, “I’m part of a continuum, a very long <laughs> continuum,” and it’s humbling and calming.
Jo Reed: I completely agree. I did exactly the same thing, Amy. I used to really frighten myself, and now, it’s almost mandatory that every year I need to go to the sea and just look out at that expanse, and I feel very small and just like a teeny, tiny part of a very big universe and it’s just fine.
Amy Stolls: It’s just fine. Like maybe it’s okay that I just sit and read a book, and also to see yourself in part of a community. In that vein, I have to say that I also sent you the title “Severance,” from Ling Ma, and <laughs> in terms of being in a community and a world. I wanted to talk about that.
Jo Reed: Yes.
Amy Stolls: Because these are books that although I loved them, I’m not reading now. <laughs>
Jo Reed: No. It’s a definite zombie apocalypse book.
Amy Stolls: Yeah, I loved it. Wasn’t too long ago, maybe six months ago, that I was on a tear of, when I had time to read, of dystopic and apocalyptic novels, and I loved “Severance” by Ling Ma. She’s a new National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, and it was fun for me to read and, you know, it imagines a world like where we’re-- you know, it’s a pandemic, right, and she keeps working and then, you know, silent streets and there she is still at the office. I thought it would be funnier than it was. I didn’t find it so funny, but it’s really well written and really well done, but I read so many of them, I mean, I love, you know, Emily St. John Mandel, “Station Eleven,” and I’ve read a lot of Jeff VanderMeer. They’re so good. I just need a little bit of a break right now, but in case anybody’s into that sort of thing, I do recommend those book.
Jo Reed: Well, I completely agree with “Severance.” I remember the way when the protagonist talks about New York and the way you can extrapolate that to any city. It’s just so moving right now, because she writes, “To live in a city is to consume its offerings. To eat at its restaurants. To drink at its bars. To shop at its stores,” and, of course, I had highlighted that in the book when I had first read it. Then going back to it in preparation for this conversation, I thought, “Wow. So what does that make New York now? Because none of this is happening.”
Amy Stolls: Yeah. It’s a very changed city. What is real? Everything feels so surreal these days. You mentioned a book about Italy that just I was like, “Yes. Let’s talk about Italy in a wonderful way, and let’s talk about China--”
Jo Reed: In a happy way.
Amy Stolls: “--in a wonderful way,” right. Because I think we need that too.
Jo Reed: Oh, we do, and that’s my book, “Culinaria Italy.” It’s edited by Claudia Piras P-I-R-A-S, and it is a gorgeous book. It is a physically gorgeous book with beautiful pictures. It’s a cookbook that’s also a cultural history. It’s divided into regions, and then with each region you have a history of the food and the way the food is cooked and produced, and you have artwork and you have recipes. Let me give you an example. This is a part in the Puglia section of the book. You’re reading about fishing, which is very important to the area, and the different fish that can be found there. You turn the page and there’s a portrait of Günter and a section of his diary written when he was traveling in Italy, and he’s talking about the food and the people and the hospitality, and then you turn that page and there are all the citrus that you can find in that area, with a recipe for Lemon Sorbet that is so simple. Four ingredients. It is so simple. It is great fun to cook from this book because <laughs> you’re reading about the area as you’re creating these dishes, and the thing is, it’s very simple cooking. You don’t need a lot of bells and whistles. A classic dish like Pasta Fagioli. It’s pasta and it’s beans. It’s really, really simple, and it is so delicious, and of course, there are pages and pages on pasta. I mean, this book is just a joy.
Amy Stolls: I don’t own that book, but I-- you wrote that to me and I thought, “Oh. I wish I had that,” because for so many reasons. I mean, I’m not-- I don’t have as much time to cook right now, but the-- and also with the knowledge that you go to the stores and they’re kind of picked over and so you take what you can get. So to live in a book right now with fresh ingredients <laughs> and recipes that are simple is just so inspiring, I would find, and also to honor Italy and live in that-- with them in that world, I think, is terrific and inspiring too. But I also, what I love, I also want to comment on the physicality of the book, because I looked it up online and I can see that it’s a beautiful book, but I’m looking at it online, and one of the things that I’ve really been so thankful for in my home is that I can pull books off the shelf and many of them that I have, because I collect the ones that are works of art, not just inside and in the words and the pages, but the way they’re designed and the paper quality and the artwork and all of that, and just to hold that in your hand. I particular in this--
Jo Reed: I agree.
Amy Stolls: --new age where-- and things are going to change, I expect, where so much more is going to be online, right, from here on in, so...
Jo Reed: Exactly, and it makes me happy to be able to sort of shop my bookshelves. Having the time, because I’m not going out, nobody’s going out, to read something in one book that will lead me to another book, that will lead me to another book, and just having the time to be able to graze that way.
Amy Stolls: Right, right.
Jo Reed: Now, we talked about what’s on our night tables, and the book you brought up that you had loved was “In the Distance,” by Hernan Diaz, which indeed was a book on my night table that I had not read, so thank you very much, because you prompted me to read it.
Amy Stolls: I’m so glad you read it.
Jo Reed: I did. Yeah, I read it over the weekend, and what a book that is. It is gorgeous, and let’s talk about what inspired you to bring it up now.
Amy Stolls: Well, I loved it. I really, really loved it, and I just read it, I think, within the last few weeks, right before this-- we were at home teleworking, and I have been thinking about it ever since, and now, particularly more than ever, and for so many reasons. It’s beautifully written and it’s a story that’s you just want to live in that world and the character is a legend, although didn’t set out to be a legend. This book takes place in the 1800s. It’s about a boy, you know, a young adult, who comes to this country almost accidentally from Sweden. I have that right? <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yes. He comes from Sweden.
Amy Stolls: From Sweden, right? He comes and he instead of going to the East Coast, where most immigrants come in at the time, he goes around the country and comes up through to California and ends up going across the country the other way when so many pioneers and other beaus [ph?] looking for gold are going the opposite way out West. He’s a very large guy. Very silent, because he didn’t speak the language, and spends a lot of time, a lot of the novel, by himself, not seeing anyone else in the vast expanse of land that our country offers, and again, because we’re sheltering in place, to be with him and remember that this country is so large is great.
Jo Reed: I agree, and I think we also have to say is he and his brother, his beloved older brother, were separated early on and his brother, we assume, went to New York, whereas he went to San Francisco, because part of that journey going East is to find his brother, which I-- just tore at my heart.
Amy Stolls: Yeah, and the characters that he meets, and there’s this forward momentum. Here we are in our home, sheltered in place, so some of us quarantined, and what we’re not experiencing is forward movement. We’re not traveling, right. We’re not moving but we’re staying in place. Here’s a character in this novel who, because of the love of his brother, is trying any way he can to make his way from California <laughs> to New York, ending up walking a lot of that way, and so much of the narrative drive is him just moving, the forward momentum. You want to know if he going to get there. Or if he’s not going to get there, what’s-- why and what’s happening to him? And it’d meditative and contemplative and lonely. It’s lonely but in a way that I want to sit with it.
Jo Reed: What I find extraordinary about the book is the author never deviates from the protagonist’s point of view, whose name is Hakan.
Amy Stolls: Right.
Jo Reed: Oh. Though they call him Hak in the book. But from Hakan’s point of view, except for the framing chapters, the first chapter and the last chapter. Everything else is from his perspective, which at times can be limited. We see his understanding grow, his coming in, things coming into better perspective. I found that to be one of the most amazing things is the creation of this character and how he so informs what we see and feel.
Amy Stolls: Yeah, we’re very-- I mean, think about the juxtaposition of being very closed in in his mind, his perspective. He uses very few words because he doesn’t speak the language. But also he’s just like that, and we’re so much in his interior world and yet we’re watching him travel across one of the largest expanses we can experience, and that’s what books and literature and stories and poetry can do too. They can in seconds take you from the very minute, inside someone’s head, experiencing someone’s perspective and feelings and thought, and then whoosh, you’re out there in the world, in some cases out in space. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly.
Amy Stolls: You know, and then back again. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Exactly, and again, as you said, realizing the expanse of this country but also realizing the geographic diversity, because boy, is that really shown in this book as he’s walking across the country.
Amy Stolls: Yeah.
Jo Reed: It really is a gorgeous book, so thank you--
Amy Stolls: Oh, no problem.
Jo Reed: --for having that on your list.
Amy Stolls: If I can just mention a YA novel that’s--
Jo Reed: Oh, please do.
Amy Stolls: I loved as much and very similar to that? Because I pulled out a book that I think I-- is one of my favorites, but I don’t think that it’s as well-known, and I would love to mention it in case anybody’s looking for a good YA that they might not have heard of, and that is “The Murderer’s Ape.”
Jo Reed: I don’t know this book at all, so tell me about it.
Amy Stolls: I know. That’s why, but it’s won all sorts of awards. It has gotten the starred reviews by all the major publications here. It’s in translation. I’m also a huge fan of books in translation, and it’s by Jakob I want to say Wegelius, I think is how you pronounce it? W-E-G-E-L-I-U-S. He’s a Swedish writer, and I-- maybe I thought of that because of Hernan Diaz’s character, but in any event, he’s a Swedish writer and illustrator, and has won all sorts of awards. The book is translated by Peter Graves. It’s just such a lovely book that also takes you on a journey in a world that you-- I just wanted to stay in, but it’s from the perspective of a gorilla named Sally Jones, so it’s a female gorilla. I can’t tell you how much I love that.
Amy Stolls: I don’t know. She’s this strong-- obviously she’s a gorilla, so she’s stronger than most humans she encounters, but she knows how to use or not use her strength. She’s an engineer and she works on a ship and she-- things happen and she-- it’s from her perspective, and it’s just wonderful the journey, the writing, but also the relationship with her and the captain of the ship that she’s on, and it’s sweet and moving and there’s great illustrations in it. I love her. I would make a pitch for a good one to read aloud even.
Jo Reed: Oh, that sounds like a great book. I had a book of short stories, because one is easily distracted these days. This is “Metropolitan Stories,” by Christine Coulson, and it’s basically about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was my museum growing up. That was the museum we went to. I lived down the street from there, but it’s told from the point of view not just from various staff people who, you know, have chapters, but also some of the objects. Like, the second chapter is from the point of view of a chair. It’s an 18th Century French chair, and it’s a little depressed, because, <laughs> you know, here it is locked up and nobody’s sitting on it anymore. The chair wishes that they could have a support group so they could start introducing themselves, “Hi, here’s who I am,” and the chair talks about its life. From its birth in a Parish workshop, to its existence behind barriers at The Met, and so it’s such an unlikely book, and it is a nice time to think about The Met that is celebrating or, you know, marking, at this point, nobody’s celebrating right now, its 150th birthday.
Amy Stolls: Yeah, I’m so glad you mentioned that because it was sort of on my list. Not on my nightstand, but on my to-read list, and now I’m putting it at the top because it looks fantastic, and it actually reminded me of another one of my favorite books that then I noticed it made sense, because Maira Kalman, and it’s M-A-I-R-A Kalman, with a “K,” she gave a really good blurb for that book of short stories, and that makes sense, because Maira Kalman writes a lot, and illustrates a lot from museums, and she has a book called “The Principles of Uncertainty,” which is just so beautiful and contemplative and mercurial and also talks about objects as well, and the importance of them, and she has a section or a few pages, on the idea of objects. Again, here we are in our homes, and I wonder if we looked around our rooms or our apartments and homes and whatnot and thought, “What objects in these rooms define us? What are the memories they bring? What are what-- or are they just things?” Or what, you know, what significance do they hold in our lives and also a good exercise to do with kids or for free writing, is to describe objects in a room.
Jo Reed: And we should say that Kalman also does the illustrated blog for The New York Times. She’s done covers for The New Yorker. So people, if they don’t know the book, certainly-- many would know her work.
Amy Stolls: Well, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” I believe, was-- they started as a column. So she collected her column, yeah.
Jo Reed: Somebody said-- not me, but I wish it had been-- somebody said what she did was created a children’s book for adults.
Amy Stolls: Yeah. Right. There are a lot of those types of books. I don’t ever know what to call them, but I love them. Kind of infuse some sort of artwork with writing.
Jo Reed: I’ll tell you a book that I am looking forward to read that I have not started is “Deacon King Kong,” by James McBride.
Amy Stolls: Ooh. That sounds great too.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I like James McBride very, very much.
Amy Stolls: Yeah, he’s <inaudibles 00:23:40>.
Jo Reed: Because he just has the ability to be funny as hell and then, man, just knock you back on the next page.
Amy Stolls: I love that.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I do too.
Amy Stolls: I’m sort of finding that-- I started before-- before I was teleworking, I started “Barn 8,” by Deb Olin Unferth, which also just recently came out, and I’m also finding it fun and so far just well-written. It’s about a girl and a-- well, so far, it’s a girl and another woman and a man who are stealing, like, a million chickens from a factory or a-- saving them from cages and whatnot, and it’s bizarre, and I loved her book of short stories, so I am-- I’m <laughs> excited to continue reading it. I have so many books on my nightstand. I read, like, four or five at a time. I don’t reread much, but I-- because they’re-- books are always coming at me, but I always have about four or five books going, and I pick up one depending on my mood. <laughs> So I usually have a book of poems I-- a book of poems, a book of short stories. In this case I have, “All the Names They Used for God,” by Anjali Sachdeva, I think is how you pronounce it?
Jo Reed: Now, you also mentioned you were reading “The Fortunes,” by Peter Ho Davies.
Amy Stolls: I have started that as well.
Jo Reed: Okay.
Amy Stolls: I love Peter’s writing. I read “The Welsh Girl,” and I’ve been meaning to read “The Fortunes” for now a year or two, and I particularly picked it up because I love Peter’s writing, and he’s just a lovely guy, and he’s a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow as well, as is Anjali Sachdeva. Sorry if I’m butchering that. My apologies to all authors whose names I have mispronounced. But Peter’s book is about the history of Chinese Americans in our country. Again, it’s like honoring Italy and China and just feels the right time read it.
Jo Reed: I was really happy to get the email that you were reading this book, because I also love “The Welsh Girl,” and “The Fortunes” was in the back of my mind, but now it’s right at the top of my reading list.
Amy Stolls: Yeah. I mean, I-- the only other book that I would want-- I mentioned, is Tracy K. Smith’s-- when she was Poet Laureate for the United States, she did a collection called “American Journal: Fifty Poems for our Time.” She collected them from other fantastic poets and--
Jo Reed: And contemporary ones, which I think is important.
Amy Stolls: Yes. Contemporary poets, and they’re gorgeous poems, and here’s what is suddenly interesting as I was re-reading some of them yesterday, and that is they’re beautiful poems and they still speak to issues of our times and feelings and things that we need to address and perspectives that are important and not heard enough, and yet here we are with something else going on.
Jo Reed: Right.
Amy Stolls: And these are “Fifty Poems for Our Time,” but if Tracy or any of us was to do another anthology in three to six months from now, how different would this anthology be? It doesn’t make the poems any less powerful at all. It’s just something to think about about what does that mean “our time”? Now. Just going to change so much.
Jo Reed: And that’s a good place to leave it. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Amy Stolls: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That’s Amy Stolls. She’s the Director of Literary Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. You’ll find all the books she and I discussed in the show notes. You’ve been listening to “Art Works,” produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to “Art Works” wherever you get your podcasts, so please do, and then leave us a rating on Apple, because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, be kind, and thanks for listening.
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The National Endowment for the Arts' Literary Arts Director Amy Stolls joins me for a conversation about books that can see us through difficult times. From children's books to YA to short stories to novels...and oh yes, there's poetry too, we discuss the many ways books can bring the world to us as we shelter in place. Amy and I also talk about the almost magical power of books to open ourselves to imagined worlds in other universes and then intensely inhabit the perspective of a single human being in a barren landscape. And, Amy is known as the agency wit--so it's a fun podcast! The books we discussed are below:
Metropolitan Stories: A Novel by Christine Coulson
Culinaria Italy: Pasta Pesto Passion edited by Claudia Piras
The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
Here by Richard McGuire
In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
Severance by Ling Ma
At the Same Moment Around the World by Clotilde Perrin
The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies
Barn 8 by Deb Olen Unferth
The Murderer's Ape by Jacob Wegelius
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
American Journal: Fifty poems for our Time, selected and introduced by Tracy K. Smith