Our Annual Roundup of What to Read, Watch, and Listen to

June 11, 2024

Cue up George Gershwin’s Summertime and read our third annual installment of what to read, watch, and listen to, a rich blend of books, film, and podcast recommendations. This year’s approach was to consult our savviest colleagues and the many “best of” lists. The result? A broad mix of genres and themes to quench any thirst for entertainment, diversion, or an existential question.


From Fiction to Fantasy

Like many books on our list, Sigrid Nunez’s meditative new novel The Vulnerables could be either an anticipated read or an introduction to a writer in top form. “Short, wise, provocative, and funny” is how one testimonial describes Nunez’s ninth book. Her 2018 novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book Award for fiction, a love story between a grieving writer and an aging Great Dane, and much more. (Production on the movie is reportedly underway.)

Popular this season among list makers and reviewers alike is James by Percival Everett (Doubleday, 2024), a rich reimagination of Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Big Jim’s perspective. It also serves as a prelude to Everett’s imagination and sly humor steeped throughout his novels. Everett’s earlier novel, Erasure (Graywolf Press, 2001), was the basis for last year’s Oscar-winning film American Fiction. All are worthy of attention.

Fans of Irish fiction writer Tana French welcome her latest novel. The Hunter picks up where her 2020 bestseller, The Searcher, left off. Friendship and moral ambiguity give way to revenge in this taut thriller set in western Ireland, boasting a band of characters introduced in the 2020 novel.

Farient’s Randi Caplan sent colleagues copies of the debut novel by Nikki Erlick titled The Measure. On the same day, people worldwide wake up to a box inscribed, “The measure of your life lies within.” The box contains a single piece of string. The length of each string indicates the lifespan of each recipient—the longer the string, the longer the life. How would life differ if we knew for sure when it ends? Even non-enthusiasts of the sci-fi or fantasy genre (like this writer) can be captivated by the stories of the characters and the impact on society of knowing whose life is long or short.

Kairos is the sixth novel by Jenny Erpenbeck to be translated from German into English. The gist (which does no justice to her prose) is an ill-fated May-December love affair in the 1980s as East Germany and the Berlin Wall tumble. Among the earnest questions explored—how is a love affair like a totalitarian state? Kairos, not coincidently, is the Greek god of opportunity.

The popular and prodigious historical fiction writer Kristen Hannah makes Bill Gates’ annual summer reading list. The Women provides a uniquely feminine perspective on the Vietnam War through the story of U.S. Army Corp nurse Frankie McGrath as she decides to join the U.S. war effort, her experiences as an Army Corp nurse, and her return to civilian life.

Ambitious readers of fantasies might consider Brandon Sanderson’s epic seven-book Mistborn series, published between 2006 and 2022. It’s the ultimate escape, taking place on a planet at least 1,000 years ago and where the bad guys, for a change, beat the good guys. On his webpage, the author writes: “The book has a little of everything for everyone. Romance, lots of action, a wiz-bang cool magic system, dark lords running amok, great visuals, and character tension. And that’s just book one.” A nod to Farient Partner Angela Moe for the recommendation.


True Stories

Lovers of golf and overcoming-the-odds stories will be captivated by Playing from the Rough by Jimmie James. The former long-time Exxon executive, now retired, overcame the Jim Crow South as one of eight children born to a single mom. In this memoir, James’s life story is interwoven with his ambitious goal to play 100 of the world’s best golf courses. (Now, there’s a bucket list.) Hat tip: Farient Partner RJ Bannister.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is an American treasure. After the death of her husband, Richard N. Goodwin, in 2018 and her move into Boston from their pastoral home in Concord, Mass., she continued to reflect on the many collected tokens, the stories of which became a writing project for the couple. When Dick Goodwin passed away, DKG found consolation in a decision to continue solo. The result is An Unfinished Love Story recounting some of the essential figures and critical moments during the 1960s when Dick Goodwin was a confidant and speechwriter for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

The proliferation of fictional and nonfictional content that explores artificial intelligence seems almost relentless. Choosing among the plethora of movies, podcasts, and books can be mind-boggling, from the academic to the dystopian to the hopeful. Among the most practical, however, is Khan Academy founder Salman Khan’s Brave New Words. Kahn, an early leader in tech-enabled education, writes with clarity and reason, digging into what AI means for students, parents, and society. Spoiler alert: Kahn concludes that what is needed is “educated bravery.”

Uplifting and optimistic describes Big Bets: How Large-Scale Change Really Happens by Rockefeller Foundation president Rajiv Shah. The son of Indian immigrants (his father practiced English listening to Ronald Reagan speeches), Shah went from medical school to a staff position at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Today, he leads the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the world’s oldest and largest nonprofits. One reviewer described his book as “part memoir and part clarion call for all of us to think more ambitiously–and optimistically–about tackling the planet’s challenges.”


Binge Worthy

A new cast and setting propel The Diplomat into a second season and holds to the original formula with aplomb. British Consulate worker Laura Simmonds, played by Sophie Rundle (Call the Midwife, Peaky Blinders), deals with U.K. nationals in Spain beset by circumstances that range from lost passports to murder. A guest cast presents a new mystery in each of the six episodes with an overarching storyline provided by the lively and often humorous interplay of the consulate staff. One reviewer on Amazon wrote of the series: “Barcelona is a beautiful backdrop for this eclectic series that is a mix of genres: espionage, gangster, and romance. Sort of like a bag of chips, you just can’t help bingeing.”

Netflix thriller Eric stars Benedict Cumberbatch as an alcoholic puppeteer in 1980s New York whose son goes missing. Cumberbatch gained widespread popularity playing a modern Sherlock Holmes in the television series Sherlock and subsequently had roles in such films as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, an adaptation of author John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and as mathematician and logician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game—any of which is compelling.

A masterwork of fiction, Shōgun returns in a new, well-received series headlined by actors Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai) and Cosmo Jarvis (Peaky Blinders). The 10 episodes adhere to James Clavell’s doorstop of a best-selling novel, which follows the 17th-century adventures of John Blackthorne, an English navigator who becomes shipwrecked in Japan. The newest series is an epic adaptation much like the original TV miniseries that aired in 1980 featuring actors Toshiro Mufune and Richard Chamberlain in the leading roles.

On the BBC, the Scottish crime drama Rebus stars Richard Rankin, who notably played Outlander‘s Roger Wakefield MacKenzie. The six episodes are based on the book series by Sir Ian Rankin (no relation to Richard) that features the aptly named Detective John Rebus investigating a turf war in Edinburg.

On June 6th, the 80th anniversary of the assault on Normandy, France, during World War II prompted a search for new programming. That led to D-Day: The Unheard Tapes on the History Channel. The two episodes feature the powerful words of Allied and German soldiers voiced by actors and images from the battle that changed the course of history.

Whether it’s futbol, football, or soccer to you, Amazon’s 99 revisits Manchester United’s treble-winning 1998-99 season in the English Premier League. As the teaser promises: “No dream is impossible,” especially in sports.

For generations of children—and their grandparents—first loves have names such as Elmo, Miss Piggy,  Grover, or Kermit. The genius of Jim Henson, mastermind puppeteer of The Muppets, Sesame Street, and scores of other big-screen movies and TV shows, is documented in a new film. Directed by Ron Howard, Jim Henson: Idea Man features home movies; interviews with fans, collaborators, and family; and snippets from The Red Book, Henson’s daily diary. What’s amazing is that it’s been 34 years since Henson left this earth at age 53. What took so long to document this incredible innovator whose creations touched and continue to touch so many?

Fans of period drama The Gilded Age might want to check out two other popular series. “Frothy and fun” have been used to describe Netflix’s Bridgerton and Apple+ TV’s The Buccaneers. Both are upper-crust romantic romps. Bridgerton is set in London and surrounding estates between 1813 and 1827, while The Buccaneers spans the 1870s in mainly Victorian London and New York. Casts of colorful characters navigate the propriety and excesses of their times in haute couture and seemingly endless galas. Credit to Farient’s Cecilia Solano.


What’s Cool in Listening

It’s been 10 years since listeners, many new to podcasts, were gripped by the first installment of Serial. Now owned by the New York Times Co., Serial has returned with a fourth season that recounts the history of the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, through hundreds of hours of recorded interviews with former prisoners, interrogators, and guards. “What’s cool about the podcast is that you hear both sides,” co-host Dana Chivvis tells a New York Times reporter. “You hear from detainees about what it’s like to survive day to day as a prisoner and then you hear from a bunch of American service members who worked there about what life was like on the other side of the wall.”

Aspen Ideas to Go is a regular podcast created from the live programming at the Institute’s annual Ideas Festival. One archived episode, From King Lear to Succession, features a conversation with actor and author Brian Cox, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and Simon Godwin, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Co. in Washington, D.C. Cox, who played a modern King Lear as Roy family patriarch in Succession, has appeared on stage as multiple Shakespearian characters including Lear. Other podcasts in the weighty series explore topics as predictable as AI and climate change and as unpredictable as menopause and the idea of a good death. Hat tip to Farient Data Analyst Bradley Cross.


Recommendations for forthcoming Farient Briefings mentions are accepted with gratitude at info@farient.com.

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