Podcast: Critical Mass

Frank Wilson on books!

Virtual Memories Show: Frank Wilson – Critical Mass

“We were taught with the idea that these books meant something, that it was something vital to your life, that if you read these books you could understand what was going on around you better than you could if you didn’t. I don’t know if anyone’s doing that now.”

Time to wrap up our August book critics miniseries! Following our conversations with Michael Dirda and Jessa Crispin, we have Frank Wilson, who’s been reviewing books for FIFTY YEARS. Frank, who launched the Books, Inq. blog in 2005, talks about the changes in book culture over that half-century, the marvel of Tolstoy, his picks for most underrated and most overrated authors, the perils of using big-name writers as book reviewers, and more!

“I think that blogging has wiped out the book reviewing business but it does wonders for the literary business.”

We also talk about his life as a Catholic Taoist, the similarities of poetry and religion, whether Catholics can write good novels, the biggest gap in his literary background, when it’s okay to break the rules of Haiku (and other forms), and why he thinks Willa Cather is truly the Great American Novelist!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Frank Wilson is celebrating his 50th year of book reviewing. His reviews have appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines, but mainly the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he served as book editor until 2008. In 2005, he launched Books, Inq.: The Epilogue, a blog about books and publishing. He has an entertaining bio over here.

Credits: This episode’s music is Sinner’s Prayer by Ray Charles (see, because of Frank’s Catholicism and belief in the fallenness of — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at Mr. Wilson’s home in Philadelphia on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a brand-new Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were also recorded on that equipment, in a room at the Courtyard Marriott in Creve Coeur, MO. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Wilson by me.

Podcast: Bookslut’s Holiday

Jessa Crispin on the Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories Show: Jessa Crispin - Bookslut’s Holiday

“You would be surprised at the level of craziness and hostility that exists in the literary world if you share a different opinion than somebody.”

Last week’s guest was quintessential bookman Michael Dirda, and this time around we have Jessa Crispin, founder of Bookslut! Ms. Crispin recently stepped down from blogging at Bookslut after a 12-year run, which is like 500 years in internet-time. We talked about that decision, the advice she’d give her 23-year-old self, the downsides of learning to write online, why lack of ambition was key to Bookslut’s success, her take on the state of book reviewing, her upcoming book, The Dead Ladies Project (2015, from University of Chicago Press), how she learned to love Henry James while nursing a breakup, and more!

“It’s been my experience that in your hour of need, the book that you need to read will find you.”

We also discuss how she escaped the Outrage Machine by moving to Berlin, how she pared her library down to 17 books, why joining the National Book Critics Circle was her biggest mistake during the Bookslut era, why Belgrade was her least favorite city to visit, and why she’s more afraid of reading her blog archives than her old margin notes. Bonus: I accidentally mix up William Safire and William Buckley!

“It isn’t the case of ‘I’m only going to review the nice things’; it’s more the case that I can cultivate the world that I want to live in. I can invite people in rather than constantly defend the gates.”

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About our Guest

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, fall 2015. Born in Kansas, she has lived in Texas, Ireland, Chicago, and Germany. She has written for many publications, some of which are still in business. Her personal library currently resides in Berlin.

Credits: This episode’s music is No More Words by Berlin (see, because Jessa isn’t writing any more blog posts for Bookslut and she moved to Berlin a while back, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at a housesit in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Crispin by me.

My morning walk

Most every morning around 6 a.m., I take my two greyhounds, Rufus & Otis (a.k.a. Rutabaga and Oatgorilla), on a mile-long walk on the loop of our neighborhood. This morning,

1) A neighbor parked a car in his front yard and, as we passed, I noticed the headlights were on. I thought I’d check to see if the door was unlocked so I could turn off the lights and save the battery. As I walked around that side of the car, a rabbit who was hiding in their grass revealed himself by bolting away. Rufus & Otis did their best to dislocate my shoulder by leaping through the air after him. Caught in mid-arc, they snarled and snapped at each other. No injuries, but I unleashed a loud, reflexive “HEY HEY STOP!”, which I’m sure the neighbors didn’t appreciate. (The keys were in the ignition, so I took those out and left them on the driver’s seat.)

2) I could hear a neighbor’s dog’s distinct yowl-bark from way down the street. I was resigned to Missy barking at the boys as we passed by, which the neighbors also wouldn’t appreciate. As we got closer to their house, it turned out that Missy was barking because a decent-sized bear was in the yard across the street. Ru & Otis again leaped up to snarl, albeit with a lot less, “Let’s go get him!” action than with the bunny. The bear quickly ambled across the yard on all fours, then got up on its hind legs and placed its front paws on a tree. It was looking at us, and I imagined it was thinking, “C’mon, man, it’s 6 o’clock in the goddamned morning; don’t make me climb a freakin’ tree at this hour. . . .” I walked backwards about 50 feet with the dogs and kept an eye on the bear. The boys snarled a little, but didn’t seem all too eager to go meet the bear. Last I could see of him, he didn’t climb the tree. Missy was still barking her head off.

The bear was smaller than this guy, whose pic I took earlier this summer when he was walking through another neighbor’s yard.

beary nice dayAnd this, dear reader, is life in Ringwood, NJ.

 

Podcast: Bookman’s Holiday

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Virtual Memories: Michael Dirda - Bookman’s Holiday

“I see people walking their dogs and looking down at their phones. When you’re out walking your dog, you should be thinking great thoughts, or reviewing your life’s major blunders, or having some moments alone with yourself.”

It’s a bookman’s life for him! I interrupted Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda from plundering the book-dealer room at Readercon 2014 for a conversation about culling his books, the great age of storytelling, teaching adventure novels, what he dislikes about the tone of today’s book reviewers, his tendency to fall asleep while reading, and the time Neil Gaiman tried to explain Twitter to him. BONUS! I went back and remastered The Correction of Taste, the episode I recorded with Michael from October 2012! Go listen to that one, too!

Dirda returns!

“I never should have gone into book reviewing. I don’t have the right qualities for it. I read slow, I write slow: but I do love books and I’m dogged about it. I’d rather be involved with them than anything else.”

We also talk about his two early career goals (riverboat gambler or Captain Blood), what brings him back to Readercon each year, and why he’s never read Portrait of a Lady but fell in love with Lud-in-the-Mist, a fantasy novel in which the protagonists are middle-aged.

“My aim always has been to champion things that have been overlooked or neglected or otherwise not given the attention I think they deserve.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, and he received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir, An Open Book, and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, On Conan Doyle, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year. Mr. Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, The American Scholar, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.

Credits: This episode’s music is A Soldier’s Tale by The Good, The Bad & The Queen (see, because The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, is one of Dirda’s favorite novels, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at the Marriott in Burlington Mass on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Dirda by me.

Podcast: Re-Explaining Hitler

The Return of Rosenbaum

Virtual Memories: Ron Rosenbaum - Re-Explaining Hitler

“The choices that an artist makes are not traceable back to a particular set of neurons firing. They’re choices made by the complete consciousness of a person. Art, in a way, validates free will, and thereby validates the notion of evil.”

Ron Rosenbaum returns to the show to talk about the new edition of his great book, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (Da Capo Press)! We talk Hitler, the meaning(s) of evil, determinism and free will, Hitler-as-artist vs. Hitler-as-suicide-bomber, “degenerate art,” the tendency to blame Jews for their misfortune, his search for the “Higgs Boson” of Hitler, and how internet culture has warped the meaning of Hitler in the 16 years since Ron’s book was first published.

“I just couldn’t bear being a graduate student, so I dropped out after a year and revolted against academia. I wanted to hang out with cops and criminals and write long form stories about America, about crimes, about strange things.”

Of course, we also get around to some other fun topics, like whether his studies of the Holocaust inspired him to become a “better Jew”, whether it’s possible to knowingly commit evil, how Bleak House changed his life, and just how he managed to become a unique voice in American nonfiction.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Ron Rosenbaum‘s work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, Esquire and other magazines. He is currently the national correspondent for Smithsonian Magazine, and was recently featured in the History Channel documentary, “The World Wars.” His books include The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, and he edited Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism. You can find him on twitter at @ronrosenbaum1.

Credits: This episode’s music is Back to Black by Amy Winehouse (see, because Ron’s a fan of her stuff, and the episode is about his returning to the topic of evil, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded in a friend’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. (There was a loud air conditioner, so I did some noise removal, which may have tweaked the audio a little.) Photo of Mr. Rosenbaum by me.

Podcast: Buddy Rich’s Teeth and the Corruption of Reality

Ron Slate on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories: Ron Slate - Buddy Rich’s Teeth and the Corruption of Reality

“It’s said that the sources of writing are mysterious, but the sources of not writing are pathological.”

slatecoversRon Slate spent more than two decades in the corporate world before returning to poetry and writing an award-winning collection praised by the likes of Robert Pinsky. We talk about his roots in poetry, how those “lost” years weren’t so lost, what it’s like to be the guy who sees things late, and how his life was forever changed the day he saw Buddy Rich’s teeth.

“Poetry is always battling invention over assertion, over statement. That’s the tug-of-war. I love poets whose work suggests that tension. I look for that battle between ‘words can do so much’ and ‘words are ineffectual.’”

We also explore why he bailed on his Ph.D., how Ted Leonsis asked him the greatest job interview question ever, what it’s like to get poetry-stalked by Louise Glück, and why he’s trying his hand at fiction. Plus, he reads us a poem from his second book!

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About our Guest

Ron Slate was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1950. He earned his Masters degree in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973 and did his doctoral work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He started a poetry magazine, The Chowder Review, in 1973 which was published through 1988. In 1978, he left academia and was hired as a corporate speechwriter, beginning his business career in communications and marketing. From 1994-2001 he was vice president of global communications for EMC Corporation. More recently he was chief operating officer of a biotech/life sciences start-up and co-founded a social network for family caregivers. Since 2007 he has been reviewing poetry and prose at his popular homepage called On the Seawall. He lives in Milton, MA.

His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Slate, and many other magazines and sites. The Incentive of the Maggot, his first book of poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. The collection was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Prize of the Academy of American Poets. The collection won the Breadloaf Writers Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize and the Larry Levis Reading Prize of Virginia Commonwealth University. The Great Wave, his second book, was published by Houghton in April 2009.

Credits: This episode’s music is Poet by Sly and the Family Stone. The conversation was recorded in Mr. Slate’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Slate by me.

Podcast: Fail Better

David Baerwald

Virtual Memories: David Baerwald - Fail Better

“Artistically, LA’s a disaster. It’s full of amazing stories. But as a city, it’s not a city. Nobody but bus-drivers see the whole place.”

Singer-songwriter, musician, inventor, dad, reader, and writer David Baerwald joins the show to talk about the ups and downs of his career in the music biz, his crazy family history, the perils of grafting personalities onto up-and-coming musicians, and why he doesn’t trust happiness. We also talk about the Watchmen-like trail of destruction that followed Sheryl Crow’s breakthrough album, why the drug business is notoriously filled with short-tempered people, how being a script analyst for a movie studio taught him how to write a song, and why he’s a firm believer in the notion that to tell a big story, you have to tell a small one.coverblock

“You just want to do something decent when you make a record, but then it becomes a whole thing. It becomes an industry, and you’re always on display and people are tearing you apart psychologically, and you just feel like a buffoon.”

We also get into the difference between writing poems and writing songs, the writers who inspired his work on the David + David album, Boomtown, and why he thinks Thomas Pynchon understood things about the world that people are only now coming to grips with. (BONUS: I clean up some loose ends from last week’s podcast with Merrill Markoe)

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

David Baerwald was one half of David + David (along with David Ricketts), a band whose one album, Boomtown, scored a gold record. They split up and Baerwald put out several solo records — Bedtime Stories, Triage and Here Comes The New Folk Underground — between 1990 and 2002. He’s written songs for plenty of acts you know, and he wrote many of the songs on Sheryl Crow’s breakthrough album, which is a story he gets into in our conversation. He’s also done a lot of work in movies and TV, both scoring music and writing songs. David’s IMDB page lists many of his songwriting credits, including Come What May, the love song for Moulin Rouge, which was nominated for a Golden Globe award. He also wrote Supermodel, for the movie Clueless, which proves he’s not ALL grim and gloomy.

Credits: This episode’s music is Welcome to the Boomtown (David + David), Colette (David Baerwald), If (David Baerwald), and Heroes (David + David). The conversation was recorded in Mr. Baerwald’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Baerwald by me.

Podcast: Dogs of LA

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Virtual Memories: Merrill Markoe - Dogs of LA

“I hate to find out that people I admire are schmucks.”

Legendary comedy writer, producer and performer Merrill Markoe let me into her home after seeing pix of my adorable greyhounds, and we got to spend an hour talking about how she co-created Late Night with David Letterman, how she was too worried about getting canceled to appreciate changing the nature of comedy on TV, which show she would love to write for if she was starting out today, what Letterman of 25 years ago would have thought of Letterman of today, and more! Along the way, she proves Christopher Hitchens wrong (women can be very funny), weighs in on Steven Colbert’s prospects taking over the Late Show, and talks about her literary influences and favorite cartoonists. And then we get overrun by her dogs, including Wally Markoe:
Wally Markoe

“Had I been able to rewrite the whole thing from the ground up, it would’ve been far preferable not to be involved personally [with the host of Late Night] and to only have been a writer. To have doubled up on that was a real big mistake.”

We also find out about her favorite Stooge, The Merrill Markoe Method of Sleepywriting (which she learned while recovering from a double-hip replacement), how she learned to stop sweating the details and start cartooning, and what she fears will be the first line of her obit. (BONUS: I offer a greyhound adoption PSA of sorts and tell silly stories about my dogs.)

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Merrill Markoe has written for TV series such as Newhart and Sex and the City, and co-created the original David Letterman show, for which she won five Emmys. She’s published eight books: four collections of funny essays (How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me!, Merrill Markoe’s Guide to Love, What the Dogs Have Taught Me: And Other Amazing Things I’ve Learned, and Cool, Calm & Contentious) and four novels (It’s My F—ing Birthday, Walking in Circles Before Lying Down, The Psycho Ex Game (with Andy Prieboy), and Nose Down, Eyes Up) and has written for a wide variety of publications including but not limited to NYTimes, LATimes, Time, Rolling Stone, Real Simple, Vanity Fair, etc. etc. She also does standup and did a number of her own specials for HBO in the 80s and 90s, including being a performer writer on Not Necessarily the News. She had a talk radio show for a while and was a funny lifestyle reporter for local news for a few years. Follow her on twitter at @merrillmarkoe.

Credits: This episode’s music is Pets by Porno for Pyros. The conversation was recorded in Ms. Markoe’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Wally Markoe by me. B/W photo of Ms. Markoe by John Dolan.

Podcast: From Billiards to Bach

Peter Kalkavage on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories: Peter Kalkavage - From Billiards to Bach

“No one can be deeply affected by this course of study and not want to go beyond it. It gets you excited about ideas, questions and authors. To read one author is to lead you to another.”

hegelshrunkHow does a man go from being a ne’er-do-well in a Pennsylvania mining town to a tutor at St. John’s College? Peter Kalkavage joins the show to talk about his path to that Great Books institution, what he’s learned going into his 38th year as a tutor, how he fell in love with the college’s music program, what his study of Hegel taught him, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, and more! (Also: Iliad or Odyssey, which offsets the question of “Luther or Calvin?”)

“In my time here, the one change that has irked me the most has been the shift from Luther to Calvin in the sophomore seminar. There were understandable problems with Luther . . . on the other hand, he deals in a blunt and powerful way with questions of freedom, secular authority, and faith-vs.-works. Calvin seems too relentlessly negative and too obsessed with the question of predestination.”

We also discuss his upbringing, The Big Lebowski, the teacher who got him to turn himself around, his favorite area to teach, how Dante taught him the possibilities of poetry, the question of whether we’re ever mature enough to read the curriculum, and the recent move to rebrand St. John’s College.

“We have to be very careful not to present ourselves in what we think might be an attractive way which misrepresents what we most have to offer our students, the country and the world: our curriculum. That’s the most important thing. Not our location, not our extracurricular activities, but the program. ‘The following teachers are returning to St. John’s next year. . . .’”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Peter Kalkavage has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., since 1977. He is director of the St. John’s Chorus. Dr. Kalkavage is the author of The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and has produced translations of Plato’s Timaeus and Statesman for Focus Philosophical Library. He is also author of two texts that have been used in the St. John’s music program, On the Measurement of Tones and Elements: A Workbook for Freshman Music.

Credits: This episode’s music is the opening credits to Miller’s Crossing by Carter Burwell. The conversation was recorded in Peter Kalkavage’s office during the St. John’s College 2014 Piraeus seminar on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Peter Kalkavage by me.

Podcast: Haste Ye Back

Seth on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories: Seth - Haste Ye Back

The great cartoonist (and designer and illustrator) Seth joins the Virtual Memories Show to talk about memory and time, his love of digression, being “Mr. Old-Timey”, what it means to be a Canadian cartoonist, and learning to let go of the finish and polish that used to characterize his work.

“When I was young, I thought there were an infinite possibility of stories you could do. As you get older, you realize you’re following a thread, and that you don’t have as much choice about what you’re writing about as you thought.”

“Style’s a funny thing. I think it’s important, but I think it’s a matter of the choices the artist makes that lead to the finished product. It is chosen, bit by bit over time, with each decision you make.”

rhythm-sprott“People only have a limited patience for listening to you go on and on about your own ideas, your own mind, your own memories. Art allows you to have that perfect experience of putting that down on paper without anyone growing tired and making you stop.”

“You add things onto yourself bit by bit through life to create the kind of person you want to be. Eventually, to some degree, it IS you. You picked these things deliberately.”

Seth: The Virtual Memories Conversation. Go listen!

“There’s some little thing that makes it hard to let it go of trying to create that fetish object you always wanted, that comic strip that looks like the best you can make it.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Seth is the pen name of Gregory Gallant, a Canadian comic book artist and writer. He is best known for comics such as his ongoing anthology Palookaville, George Sprott: (1894-1975), Wimbledon Green, The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, and It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, all published by Drawn and Quarterly. His illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Details, Spin, The New York Times, and Saturday Night, and he has designed books and DVDs for a variety of publishers, including Fantagraphics (The Complete Peanuts), Random House (The Portable Dorothy Parker), and Criterion (Make Way for Tomorrow). Here are his favorite Criterion releases.

Credits: This episode’s music is Time Stand Still by Rush (because Seth’s Canadian, see, and his work revolves around memory and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded in Seth’s hotel room during the Toronto Comic Arts Festival on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Seth by me.

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