This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 11.
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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today, Lori Gottlieb and Nikesh Shukla join us to talk about books that have shaped their own craft.
Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author who writes the weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column for The Atlantic. She is a sought-after expert on relationships, parenting, and hot-button mental health topics in media such as The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Dr. Phil, CNN, and NPR. Her most recent book is Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which takes us behind the scenes of a therapist’s world—where her patients are looking for answers (and so is she).
My name is Lori Gottlieb, and Love’s Executioner is my recommended book.
Love’s Executioner is a collection of vignettes from the therapy room by Irvin Yalom, who is now 87 years old. He’s like the Oliver Sacks of the psychotherapy world. He’s a psychiatrist. He was at Stanford for most of his career. He takes us inside the therapy room with him, and we watch him work with really fascinating patients throughout the book.
I discovered it when I was actually up at Stanford in medical school. He was sort of like the celebrity there, in terms of any of the medical students who were also interested in the human condition. This book was a very famous book, and not just at Stanford, but it got a lot of attention because he was one of the first therapists to really open up that world and expose people to it in this way. I was curious about it. I didn’t know that I was going to fall in love with the book, and that it would actually become something that guided me in my career later, but I was just curious about it, because everybody was talking about it.
I was not a therapist. I never thought I would become a therapist. This was me going into a foreign world, and visiting someplace for a little bit and then being able to return to my real life. I never expected that this would become my life decades down the road. It was just a fascinating read. I was really … He was one of these guys who was just a beautiful writer. For somebody who loves literature and who loves the world of going into people’s lives in this very rich and real and raw way, it was just something that I was fascinated by.
I haven’t reread it recently. I did reread it, I would say a couple of years ago, maybe even more, maybe like three years ago. So, it’s someones story of his relationship with them as he helped them in therapy, and so you can dip in and out of the stories. Some stories will resonate with you at a certain time in your life, and then later on one of the stories that maybe you didn’t connect with as much, you read and you say, “Oh, wow! Now I really, really resonate with that one.” I think it’s the kind of book that you read over a lifetime, that when you’re younger there are certain patients who will feel more familiar to you and then as you go through middle age then others feel more familiar to you, or other themes become more important to you.
He’s such a skilled writer in that he makes these interactions and these relationships with these people so vivid that you feel like you know them. You feel like you know him, and you feel like you know his patients. You care about them and you want to know what happens to them after, and of course we don’t know which is frustrating. Because now it’s all these years later, so so much must have happened in these people’s lives.
I’ve learned a lot from him about how he approaches being in a human being in the room with these people as opposed to the kind of stereotype of the therapist as this impartial neutral person, which we’re not.
I think his vulnerability has shown up in my own writing. I think that even if I didn’t write a book about my experience in therapy and as a therapist, if I were writing about something completely different I would still go deeper and be more vulnerable because of his writing. His writing has had a huge impact on my, I would say my courage on the page, because I think he’s so brave in this book and he really puts himself out there in ways that were, certainly at the time, revolutionary. He’s also, his descriptions of things are just, they bring things to life in this way where you really feel like you’re there.
I think too that he’s very funny. I think that a lot of people don’t associate humor with the psychotherapy profession. He’s extremely funny and irreverent and self deprecating . He says things that are not PC at all that people might take issue with, meaning his reactions to his patients, and he has very real reactions that he’s bringing it up for a reason. He’s not trying to be provocative, but he’s bringing it up because he’s saying we all have our dark sides, we all have these thoughts and feelings that we try to oppress, and if you repress your feelings they just become bigger. So, he wants to give them air and he wants to put them out in the open, and sometimes that makes him a little bit unlikeable but then you really like him because you say, but I sometimes, I don’t have necessarily the same thought, but I have my own dark side. I think he wants us to get in touch with ourselves in our entirety, which means the parts that we like about ourselves and also the parts that maybe we try to hide. And he doesn’t try to hide them, he puts them right out there for us to see and I really respect that.
There are two books that I recommend regularly to people. This is one of them, and the other one has nothing to do with psychotherapy, but they both get at what it means to be a person in the world in such a profound way and they stay with you long after you’ve read them. Interestingly, of the two books, his is the more sort of enjoyable read meaning it’s entertaining, it’s funny, it’s thought provoking, and the other one’s just extremely heavy and beautiful.
The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese. It’s not about tennis, by the way. It’s about a relationship between, actually another Stanford doctor, Abraham Verghese, he didn’t used to be there though when he wrote this, and a medical student who had a drug addiction and was hiding it, and they were both going through these life crises where Abraham Verghese his marriage was falling apart, this was in El Paso, Texas. The student was on probation because he had been caught with a cocaine addiction, and they were both trying to start over and get through these really difficult periods in their lives. It’s about male friendship in a way that I’ve never read about male friendship. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking, and it’s one of my absolutely favorite books.
So, I recommend that along with Love’s Executioner for anybody who wants to have a book that they don’t want to end and that will stay with them for a long time.
I read so many different kinds of books, I think that it’s more about the theme of the book than whether it’ a novel, or whether it’s poetry, or whether it’s memoir, whether it’s short stories. So, I’ll read anything from, you know, I’ll read Curtis Sittenfeld because I love what she says about human nature in her stories and in her novels, also. Then I’ll read Abraham Verghese because this is a beautiful story of male friendship like one I’ve never seen before. I’ll read Yalom because it’s my profession, but I read that way before I ever had any idea that it would be my profession.
What I really gravitate towards, are those stories that feel like they’re really getting at the universal questions we’re all asking about our existence. I don’t mean that in a heavy way, that sounds really heavy handed because I like really fun books, too. But I think even the fun books, like when I was saying Curtis Sittenfeld and her recent book of stories, you know it’s a really fun book but there’s a lot of profound insight in it as well.
Thanks again to Lori Gottlieb for joining us and recommending Love’s Executioner by Irving Yalom. Her memoir Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at LoriGottlieb1.
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Nikesh Shukla is a British writer and diversity activist who conceived and edited The Good Immigrant, the acclaimed collection of essays about race and immigration in the UK by 21 writers of color. He is the editor of Rife Magazine, an online magazine for young people, and the author of the novels Coconut Unlimited, Meatspace, The One Who Wrote Destiny, and Run, Riot. Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and Nikesh has been shortlisted for the Liberty Human Rights Arts Award and named as one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers 2016. His latest book, the US edition of The Good Immigrant, collects 26 essays by first and second-generation immigrants, exploring what it’s like to be othered in an increasingly divided America.
My name is Nikesh Shukla, and If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar is my recommended.
If They Come For Us is a collection of poems by Fatimah Asghar, who is a screenwriter and a poet and an essayist and a novelist, and it spans so many different things. It talks about being Muslim, Islamophobia, partition, identity, grief, bereavement, loss of a parent, queerness and sort of the particular nuance of being a woman of color in a white supremacist world.
And it’s just hung together by these passages around Partition that really really get to the root of the way the world is. It’s a really incredible piece of work. So I came across Fati because of her web series Brown Girls, which is, it’s available online, and it’s a web series about a group of queer female friends and it’s really poignant and hilarious and just brilliantly written and brilliantly directed. And I really loved it, and I was working on a writing project that had the potential to work with some international writers and so we got Fati into the room, and I worked with her for a week on this project and she was just such an incredible presence in the room. She really understands storytelling, she really understands character. She has such empathy and humor and also just knows how to tease out the weight of each moment. When she went back to America, and then a week later, her collection, galley of her collection of poetry turned up on my doorstep.
I think the thing with poetry collection, good poetry collections and good short story collections force you as the reader to slow down and read slower and luxuriate in the words and the language and the space between the woods. And I think that when you devour something as quickly as I did with this, I felt like I needed to go back and just languish in it. Because one of the things that doesn’t hit you until you’ve experienced it a couple of times is she has these really clever rhythms. I’m just gonna read a bit from one of the poems. It’s the title poem, If They Come For Us. And it goes, “My country is made in my peoples’ image. If they come for you, they come for me too, in the dead of winter, a flock of aunties step out on the sand, their dupattas turn to the ocean, a colony of uncles grind their palms and a thousand jasmines bell the air, my people, I follow you like constellations.”
Rhythmically, it just demands to be heard aloud and I think when you’re reading a poetry collection that has poems that need to be heard and you have poems that work really well on the page like Microaggression Bingo, which is literally a bingo card of microaggressions, or she actually played a bit at being a screenwriter there, poems where she plays with the script format. There are poems where she plays with the choose-your-own-adventure format. She’s really, really unafraid of using very, very pop culture references to break and test new forms of poems, which I think is really, really exciting.
And it’s something that a person of color, a woman of color, we don’t get to be experimental in this way. And also like, the thing that I love about it is, it isn’t just about identity. It isn’t just about a racial identity or a religious identity, it’s about the multiple facets of our identities. It’s about multiple facets, I guess, intersectionality of our identity as well. The way it discusses queerness, the way it discusses how we’re shaped by our familial relationships, the way it sort of discusses what space we take up and what space Fati takes up as a woman is just, it’s astonishing. It’s an astonishing collection.
I don’t read as many poetry collections as I would like to. I think probably because I had a good five years where I was part of the spoken word scene and I was going out and performing poetry, and I think I was so invested in the art of hearing poems and seeing them performed that I wasn’t that much myself into reading them on the page. But I think in the last three or four years, there’ve been really, really interesting poetry collections that have come out that have really played with the form, so for me, it started with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is these wonderful, brilliant, delicate, brittle poem essays and then, Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith’s book that won a heap of awards last year. And then in the UK, you’ve had Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda and Jay Bernard has got this amazing collection. And Raymond Antrobus with The Perseverance, which actually on the night of recording, won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work.
And I think what it actually is — oh and Zaffar Kunial’s Us as well. My God, that’s a great collection. I think what it is is there are more writers of color, more poets of color finally getting the opportunity to take their work off the stage and onto the page, and that’s a rare thing. There’s been such a health scene, a healthy spoken word scene for writers of color for years and years and years, and that’s been where we’ve really flourished or they’ve really flourished. But getting to put those poems down on page has always been, there’s always been this gatekeeping barrier that’s stopped this from happening. But something has changed, I mean, it’s lifted and you’ve had these amazing poets in the last bunch of years like Ocean Vuong as well, and Terrance Hayes, as well.
Kaveh Akbar as well. It seems to be a really healthy, rich time to be a writer of color with a poetry collection, and that to me is very exciting.
I think one of the things about Fati is, I think she’s really brave in how much of herself she puts on the page, because I think it’s quite ambitious to be as thematic and kaleidoscopic as she is, y’know? She covers a lot of ground, and for me, that would freak me out. The thought of trying to cover over 50 years of partition, issues around gender and sexuality, family grief, racism, all of those themes. They’re big themes and she’s juggling them all. Beautifully, delicately. And it makes me think I can be this ambitious.
There’s this thing that you often find when you’re pitching TV shows where you think you’ve got this sort of really, really good slow burner series overview, series Bible that’s gonna take you through the first series. And then the notes that you get from the producers always just, that’s your pilot. That entire series is your pilot. Put it all in the pilot. And you’re like, well how do I cover all of this stuff in the pilot? And they’re like, well, y’know, people want to be entertained. And I guess the point is, I guess given Fati is a screenwriter, and with writing for the screen, you have to tell your story visually, quickly, snappily, not lose yourself too much in the moment, get into a scene, get out of a scene and all the rest of it.
And I think you can really see that in her poetry, because it gives her the space to try so many things. So I guess that’s what I mean by brave, and I didn’t mean to sound patronizing.
As soon as I got this book, I’ve been tweeting about it and her so much. I had said that this was my favorite book of the year, and I talked about it in all of the end of year lists that I did. I find that when you’re a writer who people ask you to recommend books, it’s always one of the books that I always recommend because it just made a huge impact on me in a short space of time.
I think back to the effect The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi had on me from the moment I read that first line, which goes “My name is Kareem Amir and I’m an Englishman through and through, almost.” And then that one word, almost, just blew my mind. And there’ve been so few books that spoke to me in that way the The Buddha of Suburbia spoke to me. And now they’re all coming at me, thick and fast like Family Life by Akhil Sharma, like If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar, like Good Talk by Mira Jacob. And these are all books that have been released in the last 10 years, but this is how much writers of color have been held back, that we’ve had all these stories that we’ve been desperate to tell and now, finally, the world is ready to hear them and I get to experience them all.
And part of me feels a little bit of sadness that I didn’t have these at critical times in my life. But I’m glad to have them in my life now, and what’s really, really important for me is to recommend them to people so that people who are in their teens or in their early 20s or mid-20s or what have you and they need these books, they get to hear about them at the right time.
Thanks again to Nikesh Shukla for joining us and recommending If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar. The Good Immigrant, published by Little Brown and Company, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at nikeshshukla.
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