Category Design

Episode 223 – Joe Ciardiello

Virtual Memories Show 223: Joe Ciardiello

“There’s an improvisational nature, and a rhythmic nature to my drawing, building up certain areas, leaving other areas freer. I like the idea that less is more, both in music and in art.”

Award-winning illustrator Joe Ciardiello reflects on 43 years as a freelancer, the jazz portraits that turned his career around, his drumming and how it influences his artwork, having more illustrator-friends than non-illustrator-friends, why he’d rather not be called a caricaturist, the time he was accused of ripping off the style of one of his idols, the search for perfect pen and paper (and how he keeps his Rapidographs working), and his amazing Spaghetti Journal project! Give it a listen!

“If I didn’t get off Staten Island before I was 50, I was going to die there.”

“I’m obsessed with line quality, to the point of sickness. I can’t find paper that makes me want to draw.”

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

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About our Guest

Joe was born and raised on Staten Island NY, just a short ferry ride to Manhattan where he attended The High School of Art and Design and college at Parsons, earning a BFA degree. Since 1974 he has worked for most major magazines and newspapers as well as for corporate and advertising clients, book publishers and record companies.

His clients have included: American Express, Audubon, Barnes &, Capitol Records, Folio Society, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Politico, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Time and The Wall St. Journal.

Among his awards are four silver medals from the Society of Illustrators. In 2016 he was awarded the Society’s prestigious Hamilton King Award. Joe has been profiled in Communication Arts Magazine as well as other graphic arts journals. In 1999 he had a one-man exhibition of his work at the Society of Illustrators in New York. In 2007 Joe illustrated Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing for Harper Collins and in 2011 a limited edition book of his blues musician portraits, BLACK WHITE & BLUES was published by Strike Three Press. His work is also included in the Taschen book 100 Illustrators.

A musician as well, Joe plays drums with The Half-Tones, an illustrator jazz group. He lives in western New Jersey.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Joe’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same equipment in a hotel room in Los Angeles. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Ciardiello by me. Photo of me & his Philip Roth drawing by me. They’re on my instagram. Drawing of Joe by Joe.

Episode 222 – Arnie Levin

Virtual Memories Show 222: Arnie Levin

“Don’t fraternize with inkers; they’ll always get you in trouble.”

Cartooning, illustration and animation legend Arnie Levin joins the show to recount his epic career and life. We talk about Beatnik-era New York, his mother’s decades-long plot to turn him into a New Yorker cartoonist, the value of a good art director, telling the Marines he wanted to be a photographer, his two-minute education in directing animation, what it was like to see his style copied by an artist who was previously copying another artist’s style, the time Allen Ginsberg tried to give him an iguana, and more! Give it a listen! And go check out his work at!

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

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

This is adapted from Richard Gehr‘s wonderful book, I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists:

Born in 1938, the diminutive Levin sports the shaved head, handlebar mustache, and slightly rolling gait of a badass biker. Much of his upper body is tattooed with ornate Japanese imagery by a renowned yakuza body illustrator. And the more you learn about his life, the wider the gap between creator and creations seems to spread.

Levin served in the Marines before winding up as an aspiring painter amid New York City’s late-fifties beatnik heyday. “Swept up in the glamour of the beatnik era,” as he puts it, Levin co-operated an espresso house that hosted readings by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He worked parties as a rent-a-beatnik, encountering Bob Dylan, another new kid in town, during one such event.

At Push Pin Studio, then at the height of its influence upon the design world, he was plucked out of the messenger pool by Milton Glaser, who recommended him to Lee Savage’s Electra Studio, famous for its forward-looking movie trailers and commercials. After leaving Electra, Levin was recruited for The New Yorker by art director Lee Lorenz in 1974.

After taking up motorcycling at age of fifty-nine, Levin celebrated his new hobby with the aforementioned flurry of tattoos. He’s given up biking in the interests of personal safety, however, and now resides more or less quietly on Long Island in New York with his wife.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Arnie’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of me and Arnie by me. It’s on my instagram. Photo of Arnie’s ink by Nate Ndosi.

Episode 221 – Kyle Cassidy

Virtual Memories Show 221: Kyle Cassidy

“In photography, the story is the most important thing, and technical imperfections will be forgiven.”

Photojournalist (or “artist who sometimes uses a camera”) Kyle Cassidy returns to talk about his new book, This Is What a Librarian Looks Like! Along the way, we also talk about photography, his love letter to America, the difference between knowledge and information, the heroism of NASA scientists, the example of Mr. Rogers, his continued use of LiveJournal, the joy of running, and how he convinced his wife that they should take vacations to visit libraries. Also, his cat Roswell gets his two cents in! Give it a listen! And go buy This Is What a Librarian Looks Like: A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information!

“It inspires me to see scientists spending their entire lives — in the shadows, unheralded for the most part — doing something that advances our knowledge.”

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

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Kyle Cassidy has been documenting American culture for more than two decades. He has photographed Goths, Punks, Cutters, Politicians, Metalheads, Dominatrices, Scholars, and Alternative Fashion, in addition to less prosaic subjects. In recent years his projects have extended abroad to Romania, where he captured the lives of homeless orphans living in sewers; and to Egypt, where he reported on contemporary archaeological excavations. His publications include several books on information technology, as well as a regular appearance as contributing editor for Videomaker magazine. His Photo-A-Week blog was one of the first photo blogs on the internet. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Barron’s Financial, Photographers Forum, Asleep by Dawn, Gothic Beauty and numerous other publications.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Kyle’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Kyle & Roswell by me. It’s on my instagram.

Episode 220 – Seth

Virtual Memories Show 220: Seth

“The world of the studio is where my interest is now. . . . It’s the world of exploring ideas you don’t have to show to anybody.”

Seth returns to the show to talk about Palookaville, making a living, his changing relationship to comics and cartoonists, his retrospection on the ’90s cohort he came up with, the creative sanctity of the studio and the creation of art no one will see, finishing his Clyde Fans serial after 20 years (and what he wants to work on next), being the subject of a documentary, seeing his work animated, doing collaborative work, taking up photography, a key lesson he learned about marriage, the disadvantages of being a people pleaser, why Kickstarter may be like an IQ test, and more! Plus, he asks me some questions! Give it a listen! And go buy the new the new Palookaville and the documentary, Seth’s Dominion!

“I’m over that hump, where I’m no longer as engaged with the medium of comics as I used to be.”

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

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Seth is the cartoonist behind the long-running comic-book series Palookaville. His books include Wimbledon Green, George Sprott, and It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, all published by Drawn & Quarterly. He is the designer for The Complete Peanuts, The Portable Dorothy Parker, The John Stanley Library, and The Collected Doug Wright. From 2014 to 2016 he partnered with Lemony Snicket on the young readers series All The Wrong Questions. He is the subject of the recent award-winning NFB documentary Seth’s Dominion, and was the winner in 2011 of the Harbourfront Festival Prize. In 2017, he collaborated with the musician Mark Haney for the musical performance Omnis Temporalis, and his cardboard city installation was featured in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s sesquicentennial group show Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Toronto Marriott Bloor on a Zoom H2n digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Seth by me from 2014. It’s on my instagram.

Episode 218 – RO Blechman

Virtual Memories Show 218: RO Blechman

“Time may have taught me things, but I don’t think I learned anything.”

Legendary cartoonist, illustrator, animator, ad-man, artist RO Blechman joins the show to talk about his work and life. We get into the importance of play, the development of his trademark squiggly line (and how he feels when he sees it in other people’s work), his literary upbringing, his News of the Weak series of painting/collages, why he counsels against going to art school, the fateful career decision that he rues 60+ years later, his Mad Men experience and what he learned about management from running his own animation studio, the mistake of turning down a Curious George movie, creating a fore-runner of the graphic novel, and being a 2-D character in a 3-D world. Give it a listen! And go buy all his books, including Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator, Amadeo & Maladeo: A Musical Duet, The Juggler of Our Lady, and Talking Lines!

“I really should have been a filmmaker. I really screwed up my life in a terrible way, because I had a chance to be a full-time filmmaker and I threw it away, and it just kills me.”

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

Lots of ways to follow The Virtual Memories Show! iTunes, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Born Oscar Robert Blechman in 1930, RO Blechman‘s internationally acclaimed artwork spans decades, mediums, and industries. He is one of the first contemporary cartoonists to pen a full-length graphic novel with The Juggler of Our Lady in 1953, which he published after graduating from Oberlin College. His illustrations and comic strips have graced magazines, anthologies, and newspapers. He has created more than a dozen New Yorker covers. Blechman is also an animated filmmaker, and at one time owned his own animation studio, The Ink Tank. He has been awarded the Gold Medal from the Cannes Film Festival, numerous Emmy Awards, and has been nominated for a BAFTA. In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of his films. He is also in the Art Directors Hall of Fame, has been an Adweek Illustrator of the Year, and is the creator of many notable advertising campaigns. Blechman is married, has two sons, and lives in Ancram, NY.

Here’s a bio of him that Edward Sorel wrote in 1999. His own version is at his site.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Blechman’s farm on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Mr. Blechman and his wife by me. It’s on my instagram.

Episode 200 – Thomas Dolby

Virtual Memories Show #200: Thomas Dolby

“I’m never happier than when I’m out in my converted lifeboat studio staring out over the North Sea, playing with sounds. I prefer sounds to people.”

Two-hundred episodes!? Who’d’a thunk it? My guest for this special anniversary show is musician, tech entrepreneur, professor and now memoirist Thomas Dolby! We talk about his new book, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology: A Memoir, the upsides and downsides of his major careers, the gestalt of artist-artwork-audience, his curious mixture of shyness and arrogance, our respective imposter syndromes, teaching music for films, moving beyond the keyboard as a computer interface, having students who don’t know about his music career, looking back at his life and starting to figure out the big picture, and meeting the one rock band that doesn’t find Spinal Tap funny. (Jump to 7:00 to skip my intro.) Give it a listen! And go buy Thomas Dolby’s memoir, The Speed of Sound!

“I don’t write relationship lyrics. I don’t write typical pop lyrics. I start where typical pop lyrics leave off. The obsessions that I have, about geography, history, the planet, about technologies and their faults, about parallel worlds, and about my role in those worlds as a dissident: that seems to be what connects with a certain type of person.”

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

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About our Guest

Thomas Dolby has spent his career at the intersection of music and technology. He was an early star on MTV, and then moved to Silicon Valley, where he has had an extraordinary career as an entrepreneur. He has been named Johns Hopkins University’s first Homewood Professor of the Arts, where he will help create a new center that will serve as an incubator for technology in the arts. He lives in England with his family.

There’s a more extensive bio at his faculty page at Johns Hopkins.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Mr. Dolby’s home in Baltimore on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of me and Thomas Dolby by his wife, Kathleen Beller. It’s on my instagram.

Episode 189 – Glen Baxter


Virtual Memories Show #189: Glen Baxter

“The world is a mad place, and New York was a good place to be mad in.”

Artist Glen Baxter joins the show for a conversation about his new collection, Almost Completely Baxter: New and Selected Blurtings (New York Review Comics). We get into the roots of his absurdism, his first visit to New York City in the ’70s and how it changed his life, where his cowboy-thing started, why he doesn’t define himself as either an artist or a cartoonist (but maybe as a visual poet?), the challenge of doing long-form narrative when so much of his work is single-panel, our mutual dislike of the contemporary art scene, and more! Give it a listen! And go buy Almost Completely Baxter: New and Selected Blurtings!

“All the cultural vibrancy of great cities has been made less possible by the fact that people can’t afford to live there anymore. The energy is dissipated.”


We also get into how absurdism insulates him from this modern world, the impact of Brexit on British culture, why his humor was always a tough sell in the UK, the paradox of political cartoonists’ work being bought by the politicians they ridicule, the joy of ukulele, the experience of having his work knocked off by other artists, the time he got a Cartier commission, and more. Now go listen to the show!

“European culture is important to me. Having that snatched away by Brexit, well, that’s something no one discussed in any of the debates.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guest

30130569142_183be2eae0_zGlen Baxter is the author of many books since the 1970s, including The Impending Gleam, The Billiard Table Murders, and Blizzards of Tweed. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Elle, Vogue, Le Monde, The Observer, and The Independent on Sunday. He is a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and his art is often exhibited in New York, Amsterdam, Paris, and London, where “Colonel” Baxter lives. His new collection is Almost Completely Baxter: New and Selected Blurtings (New York Review Comics).

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Bethesda North Marriott on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Photo of Mr. Baxter by me.

Episode 182 – Virginia Heffernan

Virtual Memories Show #182: Virginia Heffernan

“It’s very, very weird to do something along with three billion other people.”

magic-and-loss-9781439191705_hrCultural critic Virginia Heffernan joins the show to talk about her new book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon & Schuster)! We talk about what’s behind the screen, why the internet is bigger than the Industrial Revolution, her first experience online in 1979, what it’s like to be in a piece of performance art with half the world’s population, her crushing defeat at meeting Joan Didion, why she’s nostalgic for landline phones, the motive motive of Pokemon Go, asking The New York Times to host a shred-guitar competition, and why there’s value in Reading The Comments! Give it a listen! And buy Magic and Loss!

“The Magic is the part of the internet that is delightful, that moves you to a new space, that is the Mystery of existence. The Loss is that sick feeling you have when you’ve been online all the time.”

We also get into the karmic hassle of filing expense reports, the necessity of having an online avatar, balancing her virtual and physical presences, the Talmudic ferocity of language-correctors online, the long history of selfies, what goes wrong every time she tries to write fiction, being a fiction fact-checker for The New Yorker, why people should read upthread, and the miracle of her author picture and the uncanny valley. Now go listen to the show!

“Absolute banality is not good, but babbling eccentricity is dangerous, too.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guest

vheffavatarVirginia Heffernan (a.k.a. @page88) is a journalist, critic and author, most recently, of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Heffernan has been called “America’s preeminent cultural critic,” “a public intellectual for the 21st century,” and among the “finest living writers of English prose.” Edward Mendelson in The New York Review of Books called Magic and Loss, “surprisingly moving…an ecstatic narrative of submission.” Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of WIRED, writes, “Heffernan is a new species of wizard. It is a joy and a revelation to be under her spell.”

From 2008 to 2012, Heffernan wrote “The Medium,” a weekly column about Internet culture, for The New York Times Magazine. Before introducing the column, Heffernan spent four years as a television critic at the daily New York Times, where, in addition to writing reviews and features, she chronicled the convergence of television and the Internet. In 2002, she received a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard, where her dissertation was on financial dynamics in American novels. Before that, she served as articles editor at Talk Magazine, senior editor at Harper’s Magazine, and television critic for Slate. From 2012 to 2014, she was the national correspondent at Yahoo! News. From 2015-2016, she was a Visiting Scholar in the department of Media, Culture and Communications at NYU, and editorial director of West, a venture-capital firm in San Francisco. She still consults with VCs and startups.

Heffernan has also written for The New Yorker, Mother Jones, New York Magazine, Salon, MTV, Politico, VICE, WIRED, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Glamour, The Message, Matter, and many other publications. She has appeared on The Open Mind, 20/20, CNBC, MSNBC, and regularly on NPR. As an academic and a journalist, Heffernan has lectured and keynoted at Google, The Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, Princeton, Dartmouth, Ohio University, Harvard, Union College, NYU, The Savannah College of Art and Design, The National Gallery of the Arts, and Boston College, among many other institutions, universities, and corporations. Her essays have been widely anthologized, including in Extreme Exposure (1999), Unholy Ghost (2002), and Prime Times (2004), Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future (2014), What to Think About Machines That Think: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence (2015). In 2005, Heffernan (with co-writer Mike Albo) published the comic novel, The Underminer (Bloomsbury).

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded Ms. Heffernan’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Photo of Ms. Heffernan by Francis Hill.

Episode 160 – Bob Stein & Ashton Applewhite


Virtual Memories Show #160:
Bob Stein & Ashton Applewhite

“In the last few hundred years, we thought of reading as something you do by yourself. What we’re discovering now is that all media consumption — whether movies, games, or reading — is going social. And it’s going to be completely different.” –Bob Stein

What do you get when you synthesize Marx & McLuhan? Ask Bob Stein! Bob’s the rare person for whom the term “visionary” isn’t an overstatement (seriously: check out his bio below). He’s been at the forefront of digital publishing for decades, and has plenty to say about how technology is transforming human experience, from LaserDisc to Oculus Rift. We talk about the importance of failure and the era of Good Enough, how his Maoist background may or may not influence his long-term vision for humanity, the directions that future media creation and consumption may take, Silicon Valley’s twisted obsession with immortality and machine intelligence, living comfortably in the virtual world, his hopes for a VR revolution, and more! Give it a listen!

“Should my goal be to remain what I was when I was 20? What kind of insane, self-corrosive goal would that be?” –Ashton Applewhite

Then Bob’s partner, Ashton Applewhite, joins us to talk about the publication of her new book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism! We discuss the societal bias against aging, what she learned by dyeing her hair gray, the decision to “self”-publish This Chair Rocks, why she doesn’t want to think about writing another book for at least a decade, the potentials of an all-age-friendly world, and more! Go listen and then order a copy of This Chair Rocks!

“The real book of the future is going to connect everyone.” –Bob Stein

Also, if you want to find out who Bob & Ashton are reading nowadays and get a list of the books we talked about in this episode, join our Patreon and become a monthly contributor to The Virtual Memories Show! At the end of March, the new episode of our patron-only podcast, Fear of a Square Planet, will go up with a bonus segment about who he’s reading and why.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guests

Bob Stein writes, “I got bit by the electronic publishing bug in 1979 and haven’t looked back since. I spent the first 15 years expanding the notion of the page to include rich media. the two companies i founded, Criterion and Voyager, managed a lot of firsts — the first films with commentary tracks and supplementary sections; what is widely regarded as the first commercially viable CD-rom, The CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, referenced in Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations and referred to by Alan Kay as “the first piece of digital “content” worth criticizing”; and the first electronic books — Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Trilogy and Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice in 1992. After that there were a bunch of years spent on tool-making and in 2004 the Macarthur Foundation gave me a huge five-year grant to explore the question of what might happen to publishing in the internet era. with that grant I started the Institute for the Future of the Book where my colleagues and I conducted a bunch of exciting experiments around the question of what happens when you locate a text in a browser with a live dynamic margin. The upshot of this work was a new company SocialBook aimed at building the first truly post-print publishing platform. we’ve been developing the underlying principles for almost ten years and actual code writing for more than three. SocialBook is browser-based and it works.”

Ashton Applewhite writes, “I didn’t set out to become a writer. I went into publishing because I loved to read and didn’t have any better ideas. I had a weakness for the kind of jokes that make you cringe and guffaw at the same time, my boss kept telling me to write them down, and the collection turned into the best-selling paperback of 1982. I was a clue on Jeopardy (“Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes?”; Answer: “Blanche Knott”), and as Blanche, I made publishing history by occupying four of the fifteen spots on the New York Times bestseller list. My first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, was published by HarperCollins in 1997. Ms. magazine called it “rocket fuel for launching new lives,” and it landed me on Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum enemies list. It also got me invited to join the board of the nascent Council on Contemporary Families, a group of distinguished family scholars. I belonged to the Artist’s Network of Refuse & Resist group that originated the anti-Iraq-invasion slogan and performance pieces titled “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” As a contributing editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine, I went to Laos to cover a village getting internet access via a bicycle-powered computer. Since 2000 I’ve been on staff at the American Museum of Natural History, where I write about everything under the Sun. The catalyst for Cutting Loose was puzzlement: why was our notion of women’s lives after divorce (visualize depressed dame on barstool) so different from the happy and energized reality? A similar question gave rise to my new book, This Chair Rocks: why is our view of late life so unrelievedly grim when the lived reality is so different? I began blogging about aging and ageism in 2007 and started speaking on the subject in July, 2012, which is also when I started the Yo, Is This Ageist? blog. Since then I’ve been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism and been published in Harper’s and Playboy. In 2015 I was included in a list of 100 inspiring women–along with Arundhati Roy, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Germaine Greer, Naomi Klein, Pussy Riot, and other remarkable activists–who are committed to social change.” This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (Networked Books) was published in March 2016.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Roosevelt hotel on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same setup. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photos of Bob & Ashton by me.

Another Year, in the Books: 2015


This is a month late. I’m just crazy over-worked, although that didn’t stop me from reading 50 books last year, or another 6 in the first month of 2016. So maybe it was more a function of anxiety than actual work-stress. Like you care.

The list below only includes prose works, not comics. I did read a bunch of good comics in 2015, like Invisible Ink, The Story of My Tits, and Soldier’s Heart (although there’s a prose Soldier’s Heart on the list). In The Guest List episode of the podcast, I talked about my favorite books from the past year, which are echoed below: I loved me some James Merrill and some Houdini.

I didn’t make any book-resolutions in last year’s edition of this writeup. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get ahead enough with the podcast and work to be able to tackle much “extracurricular” reading, but I hope to find time for The Radetzky March, The Master and Margarita, and Waugh’s Sword of Honour Trilogy. Thanks for reading.

Oh, and a few of the books I read were on my Kindle, so they’re not in The Big Stack picture above). Otherwise, that’s every book that I read in 2015.

All photos by Amy Roth Photo.

Note: (r) means it’s a re-read. 


* * *

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer – Sarah Bakewell – podcast coming someday! – I kicked off the year with this biography of Montaigne, and read another one later in the year (by Stefan Zweig) this one was better. Bakewell manages to tell the story of Montaigne’s life and times, explore how they inform his Essays, and show how the Essays themselves help us understand what it means to be alive (that is, How To live). Longtime readers know I’m a big mark for Montaigne, having spent a few years working my way through the Essays from beginning to end for a blog-project, so I’m biased here, but I greatly enjoyed revisiting Montaigne through Bakewell’s book.

Third Rail – Rory Flynn – Listen to our podcast – This is the first of a series of crime novels by a pseudonymized Stona Fitch. Last year, I read two of Stona’s novels, including a really horrifying book called Senseless. I was glad to find that this one didn’t contain any of the graphic torture that Stona deployed in the earlier work. It’s an entertaining novel about an overeducated (as in Harvard) cop working in a Boston suburb. He gets enmeshed in a plot around a high-powered designer drug at the same time that his dissipation leads to him losing his gun. It’s tense, it’s noir, it’s well-written, and it doesn’t include a scene with a guy getting his fingers ground down with a cheese-grater, so bonus!

Unreliable Memoirs – Clive James – Listen to our podcast – Clive James is a treasure, and here’s where he starts telling the semi-fictive story of his life. James’ writing is alternately joyful, hilarious, and heartbreaking. This one covers his childhood, the loss of his father (MIA/POW in WWII, then killed when the plane bringing him home from the war crashed), his early education, and his departure for England. I read it (and vols. 2-4) in a hurry while preparing for a podcast with James, but I savored the humor and the lovingly detailed (and again, possibly fictive) memories of growing up in Australia in the 40s & 50s.

Happy are the Happy – Yasmina Reza – Listen to our podcast – A funny, brief novel about a string of people in Paris. Each narrates in the first person, and talks about other characters, all of whom come into their own. It’s a world of ennui and some sadness, and the only truly happy character is psychotic. It reinforced my belief that everyone in France is polygamous, but that’s probably just wishful thinking on my part.

The Tourmaline – Paul Park – podcast coming someday! – This is the second volume in a 4-book series about a political & magical battle on an alternate earth. I enjoyed the story through this point, but I’m embarrassed to say I never got through vol. 3, so I don’t want to say too much about this one. I’ll go back and read the whole shebang this spring, I hope. Part of my vol. 3 derailment was due to reading it on a Kindle, so I bought a hard copy at World Fantasy Con last fall.

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity – Prue Shaw – Listen to our podcast – I’m really thankful that I finally got to read Dante in 2014. Also, embarrassed that it took me so long. This book, an exploration of the Commedia by Prue Shaw (wife of Clive James, who recently completed a translation of Dante), is organized along a series of themes — Friendship, Power, Life, Love, Time, Numbers and Words — and manages to interweave the work with Dante’s life, illuminating both of them in the process. Since I read the Commedia relatively recently, I’m not sure how useful a book it would be for those who have never picked up Dante, but I felt that it explained what makes Dante’s work immortal without putting undue pressure on the reader. That is, Shaw helps keep the Commedia from being too intimidating, and the biographical elements help to humanize Dante the poet (maybe a little in contrast with Dante the narrator).

Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) – Matthew Farber – Listen to our podcast – The author & I went to high school together, and I thought it’d be neat to do a podcast with him about his new book on game-based learning models. So, not a novel or a biography, but an interesting examination of how games — in all their incarnations — can help students learn to think. Back in middle school, I figured out how the “stock trading” simulation could be gamed by focusing on penny stocks, dumping them when they increased in volume and investing at the bottom of the market repeatedly. At the end of a period, while other students had moderate gains or losses, my account would have to be represented in exponential numbers (this was the early ‘80s, when the school computers’ programs ran on audio cassette). So I’ve always been sensitive to the notion of “gaming” systems and creating perverse incentives based on rules. However, Matt’s work is more about collaborative learning/play, and if I had kids, I’d be glad to use this sorta model to get ‘em learning. Good thing I don’t have kids.

La Ronde – Arthur Schniztler – When I was reading Happy Are The Happy, the press material mentioned that it was reminiscent of or inspired by this play by Schnitzler. When I mentioned that to the author during our interview, she said it was completely untrue. Still, I’m glad I read it. It consists of ten scenes, each one basically passing the baton along from one character to the next, creating a big ol’ chain of sex and class. It was written in 1897 and apparently not staged for more than 20 years, because people weren’t ready for the notion that people like to have sex.

Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language – Clive James – Listen to our podcast – This is a collection of James’ recent writing on poetry. As someone who’s a bit of a poetry moron, I enjoyed it immensely, in part for the same reasons I enjoyed Prue Shaw’s book on Dante: he keeps the poetry from being intimidating. (As opposed to the Harold Bloom book I read near the end of the year, The Daemon Knows, where his chapter on Emily Dickinson left me baffled and holding on for dear life). I’d read some of these pieces when they were being published, but it’s always great to have a collection of James’ work at your fingertips. The essay on Robert Frost is worth the price of admission by itself.

Falling Towards England / May Week Was In June – Clive James • Listen to our podcast – Two more Clive James memoirs (like I said, I was prepping somewhat frantically; it turned out to be a great podcast!). Falling Towards England covers his years trying to get a job in England, and May Week Was In June goes into his time at Cambridge, as an older undergrad. I found these more entertaining than the first volume, because the stakes get higher (jobs, education, getting married) than the childhood hijinks of James’ early days. Plus, I’m fascinated by the way people find themselves in certain careers, as well as the paths they take that dead-end on them. There’s plenty of pseudonyms to be had in both volumes, but I didn’t find it too critical to know who people “really” were.

The Third Man – Graham Greene – I read this novella on a train from London to Cambridge, after picking it up at Hatchards in Piccadilly. I love the movie (having only discovered it 6-7 years ago), which makes it tough for me to assess the book on its own. It’s inescapable to note the changes that were made from prose to film, and whether they worked. Making Martins & Lime American and not British, for example, was an improvement, I think. Making Martins less emotional and broken-up over Lime’s death also tightened the story. And, of course, the book doesn’t include the great “cuckoo clock” speech, which Orson Welles wrote himself. So, it was an enjoyable and interesting read, in the sense of seeing what the raw material was, and how it would get transformed into a classic movie.

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever – Walter Kirn – Listen to our podcast – After Clive James’ Cambridge experience, I delved into Walter Kirn’s Princeton experience (also for a podcast). Kirn portrays himself as a fish-out-of-water in an Ivy League school, unprepared for both the education and the culture. Rather than “apply himself” to literary studies, he becomes a student of cynical obsequy, figuring out how to fit in as a disaffected contrarian. His youthful model of scoring brownie points morphs into something more sinister and maybe damaging. It doesn’t carry the apocalyptic heft of Blood Will Out (which I enjoyed the heck out of in 2014) or Up in the Air (a much better book than movie), but does manage to illustrate some of the lingering problems of our melting-pot notion of America.

North Face of Soho – Okay, one more Clive James memoir! I haven’t gotten around to reading the fifth one (The Blaze of Obscurity), but this one continues James’ raconteurism (?). It details post-Cambridge life, finding work as a writer, TV presenter, theater producer (sorta), as well as becoming a father. It felt a little looser and snippier than the earlier volumes, maybe because more recent and fresher scores to settle, but still a joy to read.

How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit – Witold Rybczynski – Listen to our podcast – I’ve enjoyed Rybczynski’s columns on architecture for years, but the only book of his I’d read previously was a series of NYPL lectures called The Look of Architecture. This book was really useful for helping explore/explain what architecture is, how it works, and why “architecture criticism” is a doomed endeavor. (That is, as I recall, because the buildings aren’t static; they’re to be understood over a course of years, in terms of how they interact with their surroundings, how people use them, and how they age.) I think the book’s great achievement was getting me to stop bashing Frank Gehry, and to appreciate his work. Rybczynski’s section on his Grand Tour just thrilled me, but I’m a nerd for that type of tradition and connection with antiquity.

Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ’70s & the ’80s – Brad Gooch – Listen to our podcast – This one’s a memoir about the author’s relationship with Howard Brookner, an artist and filmmaker who died of AIDS in 1989. I wanted to enjoy it more, and I’m still not sure what was missing from it. It’s about the NYC arts scene in the ’70s and ’80s, which is prime territory. And I’m not creeped out by the promiscuity of post-Stonewall-to-pre-AIDS New York (I published Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man), but I somehow failed to connect enough with Gooch’s narration about his life with Brookner. I have a feeling it says something about me, rather than the author, that I wanted to hear more about his struggles with religion, his work-life as a model, and the contradiction of being deeply in love with someone while both of you are sleeping around. It does capture all sorts of wonderful and grungy aspects of the time they lived in. I should note that I read a lot of it in a hotel in Vegas, so it’s possible I was a bit dissociated from my soul at the time.

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China – Michael Meyer – Listen to our podcast – This one opened a world up to me, namely the Manchuria region of the title. The writer, an American, lived in a town called Wasteland for 3 years as it underwent an economic upheaval. Meyer does a great job of interweaving the contemporary situation in Wasteland with the history of northern China and his own story (he married a woman from Wasteland). It’s a travel narrative reminiscent of Bruce Chatwin, and it provides tremendous insights into the colonial history of the region (which helps explain aspects of Chinese behavior). Listen to our podcast!

Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers – Edward Mendelson – Listen to our podcast – This is a collection of profiles of a bunch of great writers, critics, and poets from the 20th century: Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, WH Auden and Frank O’Hara (Mailer’s the only one who lived to the 21st century). Mendelson paints vivid portraits of each man, his work, and the impact he did or didn’t have on the world at large. At the same time, he dovetails the extreme personalities of these men with their work. That is, at times their striving for literary laurels seems to stem from aspects of their upbringing or lives, while at others they engage in (usually sexual) behavior that feels like an acting-out, or a desire to subvert their own gifts. Books like this tend to make me a bit sad, because they evoke a period not that long ago when writers mattered.

How Sweet It Is! – Thane Rosenbaum – Listen to our podcast – Can one write a fun, light novel about a pair of Holocaust survivors and their son trying to function? If you’re Thane Rosenbaum, yeah. You set it in Miami in 1972, populate it with the various celebs from that time — Jackie Gleason, Meyer Lansky, Sinatra, Ali, I.B. Singer, Bullet Bob Hayes and more — and tie it into the historical moment — two presidential conventions and the Munich massacre — and you’re good! It’s not as harrowing as some of Rosenbaum’s other fiction or his non-fiction, but it’s got its dark moments. It’s an affectionate reworking of Rosenbaum’s own childhood, and it’s gorgeous to see how one generation that was focused on survival has to try to show the next generation how to live.

Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes – Listen to our podcast – I read this one to host a panel at the Goethe Institut with the author and two other speakers. Mr. Vermes’ novel is a satire in which Hitler wakes up in the middle of an abandoned lot in modern-day Berlin, with no recollection of his final days. He has to figure out what happened to Germany and how to regain power. He assumes the Russians lost because, if they’d won, they’d surely have burned all of Germany to the ground. The presence of so many Turkish restaurants makes him assume that the Turks joined to fight off Stalin’s armies. Eventually, he figures it out. The problem is, no matter how often he tells people that he’s Hitler, they assume he’s a Hitler impersonator who stays in character. He gets a TV show and tries to rally the volk, but it weirdly backfires. It’s an entertaining novel, but it also forces the/this reader to wonder when it’s okay to laugh at Hitler and when it’s okay to laugh with him. To what degree is a reader responsible for another reader’s response to a book? What about the writer’s responsibility? We talked about that a bit in our panel, which focused on the topic of satirical representations of Hitler. During the panel, I learned that people who can speak German don’t find those Downfall parodies funny. On the plus side, the German government paid me $500 to conduct a panel on when it’s okay to make fun of Hitler, which I consider a minor bit of reparations.

Chronicles – Bob Dylan (r) – This one’s a re-read, inspired by Wayne White telling me that his artist-mentor, Red Grooms, is one of Dylan’s favorite artists, as mentioned in the book. Of course, Wayne didn’t tell me that this happens about 10 pages from the end. Still, I enjoyed returning to this one, and was struck by how much it was echoed in the Coen Bros.’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. ILD was supposedly largely based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir; at some point, I’ll have to check that out.

Where Women Are Kings – Christie Watson – Listen to our podcast – I didn’t dig this one too much. It’s about adoption, cultural assimilation, and maternal love, which are three things I’ve never understood (I KID!). A mixed-race couple in London adopts a 7-year-old boy of Nigerian descent who was tortured by his mentally ill mom. They try to love him, suffer the ups and downs of being parents, and then find that they’re pregnant with a child, which warps their son’s dynamic even more. It’s good material, but it felt rather staged, or mechanical, in terms of the inevitability of plot points. It’s a sad subject, and Watson to her credit doesn’t give it a happy ending, but outside of the humorous Chav supporting characters, I didn’t get too much out of this.

Muse: A novel – Jonathan Galassi – Listen to our podcast – This one’s a roman a clef about the publishing industry, centered on a secret held by an Elizabeth Bishop stand-in. It’s by Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar Straus Giroux, and the lead character is a younger, sorta idealized version of him. I mean “idealized” in that Galassi came out as gay in his 50s while the narrator is more comfortably out in his youth. I found the novel to be at its best when it’s telling tales of publishing days past. There’s also a great scene set at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Galassi takes the big creative risk of including the Bishop-esque poet’s actual poems, and I don’t think they really work. (He cuts himself some slack by making this work from the poet’s declining years.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s an entertaining work, but it’s uneven, and it posits a contemporary world where a poetry collection can change the world. Like I said in the bit on Moral Agents, I miss the days when writers had that stature, but we’re commodities now.

James Merrill: Life and Art – Langdon Hammer – Listen to our podcast – One of my favorite books this year. I didn’t have a lot of experience with Merrill’s poetry, but Langdon Hammer’s biography explore’s both JM’s life and its intersections with his poems. It’s big, but I found it compulsively readable (Hammer was a little shocked when I told him that I’d read a chapter a day in order to be ready for our podcast). What I found fascinating about Merrill wasn’t simply his poetic achievement and his Ouija-board derived major work, The Changing Light at Sandover, but the way in which someone born into huge money (his dad was co-founder of Merrill Lynch) managed to pursue his art with the discipline and rigor of a career. That is, heirs tend not to grasp the value of hard work, and JM’s life breaks that mold. Hammer manages to convey that, the poetic explication, and the singular path JM took as a wealthy, pleasure-seeking gay man in mid-century America (and Greece). This is a remarkable book, and I hope readers don’t get daunted by its size (around 800 pages), because Hammer really manages to convey the immensity of a life in a way I’ve rarely seen in print.


Orient: A Novel – Christopher Bollen – Listen to our podcast – I read a few mysteries and thrillers this year, and I think this was my fave. It’s a murder mystery taking place in a town at the end of Long Island’s North Fork. Wealthy New York artists have begun buying up homes, causing tension with the locals. A young drifter comes to live with a local, and finds himself a suspect as the murders commence. Bollen does a fantastic job of building the town and its history, but also draws sympathetic profiles of the artists who are moving in, not content to make either side a caricature. A key character gets killed pretty late in the book, in a way that’s kinda merciless, and I called Bollen out on it when we recorded our podcast, but he took it as a good sign that I cared so much for the character that the death scene bothered me.

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella – David Gates – Listen to our podcast – I love Gates’ stories and novels, but I have a warning for readers of this one: don’t read it all at once. Space the stories out, because Gates’ tone and over-educated, self-nullifying characters can get a bit overwhelming one after another. He’s not repetitive, but it’s a type that can kinda wear thin. Or maybe I just read the collection WAY too quickly. Regardless, the centerpiece of the book is a novella that absolutely floored me, and it makes me wish Gates had another novel out, even though he’s an absolute master of the short story.

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty: A Novel – Amanda Filipacchi – Listen to our podcast – This is one of those novels where the title is exactly what it’s about. It’s a bizarre fable/fairy tale about female beauty and men’s reaction to it. It’s ridiculously enjoyable; I picked it up at The Strand and found myself like 15 pages in, blocking traffic. There’s slapstick, there’s philosophical rumination on love and appearances, there’s a murder mystery, there’s surrealism, there’s a love story, and maybe some redemption.

Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea – Jonathan Kranz – Listen to our podcast – I never know how to write about YA novels, for obvious reasons: not my demographic, I don’t have kids, and I don’t like other people’s kids. That said, this is a pretty thoughtful, solidly written novel about a trio of mismatched, troubled teens in a New Jersey shore town that’s not quite Ocean City. If I had a teenaged kid, I’d be happy with him reading this, but I’d probably be unhappy a variety of other reasons.

Generation Loss – Elizabeth Hand – Listen to our podcast – I went into this thinking “Generation Loss” was some sort of military term, like that “Generation Kill” book. Turns out it’s a photography term, and it’s a thriller novel about a burned-out, dissolute photographer named Case Neary. She was a big deal on the punk scene 30 years earlier, and is at the end of her rope when she gets an assignment that leads her into a decades-long murder mastery in rural Maine. Hand does a great job evoking the locale, and Neary’s lack of morals make her a pretty entertaining protagonist. Not a genre I spend too much time reading, but I enjoyed it a bunch.

Available Dark – Elizabeth Hand – Listen to our podcast – This is the sequel to Generation Loss, so I was prepared for the photography-title. Cass Neary goes to Iceland partly to avoid the fallout of the previous novel’s events. This time, the murders she stumbles into are geared around photography, and the writing is even more confident than the previous Neary novel. In some respect, it’s not exactly a mystery novel, because Cass kind of gets carried along from scene to scene toward the murderer, without much reliance on her own detective activities. She’s not a detective, so it’s okay that she’s not solving everything on her own, but I would’ve liked a little more initiative on her part. That won’t stop me from reading the third Neary novel when it comes out in ’16, of course.

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point – Elizabeth Samet – Listen to our podcast – This is a wonderful semi-memoir about being a civilian literature professor at West Point. Elizabeth Samet demolishes a lot of stereotypes about the military, showing how her course of study works to help her students (future officers) strike a balance between regimentation and creativity. The period she covers spans 9/11, and it was fascinating to see how the college, the cadets, and her role changed in response. I loved this book.

No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America – Elizabeth Samet – Listen to our podcast – Didn’t love her followup as much, probably because I read it immediately after, in preparation for our podcast. I’m sure if I read it a year or more after Soldier’s Heart, it would have stood much better on its own. Unlike that book, this one works more to tell the stories of her students in a post-9/11 world. Many of them were thrust into battle-command roles in their 20s, and by the time they were rotated out or finished their commissions, they were rendered hollow, unable to find any experience that matched the vividness of war. She also writes of the cadets who never came back from war. I mean, it’s a great topic, but the book just didn’t grab me the way her previous one did. The more I think about it for this writeup, the more I realize pieces of it keep coming back to me; I’ll likely give it a re-read in a year or two.

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History – Rhonda K. Garelick – Listen to our podcast – Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting old, but a bunch of my favorite books in 2015 were biographies. I didn’t know what to expect from this bio of Coco Chanel, since I only had a general knowledge of her life and her impact on women’s fashion, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Rhonda Garelick does a great job exploring the self-mythology of Chanel’s life, the importance of her work, how she changed the way women saw themselves, and more. The book does a great job of getting interviews with new sources, as well as explaining Chanel’s achievements in their economic context. It’s one thing to praise her work, but it’s another to show why it was unprecedented and how it required certain conditions in order to success. Also, Garelick doesn’t pull any punches when she explores Chanel’s terrible behavior during WWII, but she manages to weave that into the complex tapestry of Chanel’s life in a way that, while it’s not excusable, it is explicable. The book is also filled with photos that help the, um, visually/ladyfashion-challenged to see the innovations of Chanel’s work. Again, a person/topic I wouldn’t think I’d find so interesting, but Garelick does a fantastic job of bringing Chanel to life, in all her contradictions and complexity.

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins: A Novel – Irvine Welsh – Listen to our podcast – This is the second Miami novel I read this year, after Thane Rosenbaum’s How Sweet It Is!. Since Irvine Welsh is Irvine Welsh, this one’s both more apocalyptic and a lot funnier. A personal trainer saves a guy who’s about to be murdered on a causeway. A chubby artist films the whole thing on her phone, making the trainer a celebrity. Until it turns out that the perp was a victim of child molestation and the guy he was going to kill was the molester from his childhood. It only gets dark a bit later, after the artist becomes infatuated with the trainer, and the trainer decides to kidnap the artist, chain her up, and force her to lose weight. It skewers the art world, the “Biggest Loser”, reality TV and celebrity in general, and does it all pretty acidly (again, Welsh being Welsh). It’s the first thing I read of his that wasn’t set in Scotland, and I was impressed at how adeptly he “wrote American.” We recorded a podcast a few weeks later and literally never mentioned this book, because I suck.

Latest Readings – Clive James – Listen to our podcast – By now, you’ve guessed that I’m a huge mark for Clive James’ work. This collection of essays covers the books he’s been reading since his health collapsed. He writes, “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” And so he goes back to Joseph Conrad and discovers new depths. He returns for the bazillionth time to Anthony Powell, re-evaluates Olivia Manning’s two war trilogies, the Jack Aubrey novels, and more, in his witty, incisive manner. No, it’s not the quality of Cultural Amnesia or his other top-flight work, but it’s the sort of book that will send you scrambling to a bookstore to pick up more of the titles he writes about. For me, that’s the best kind of book there is.

Lionel Asbo: State of England – Martin Amis – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Amis’ prose will never achieve the pyrotechnics of Money and London Fields. This one is about a chav who wins the a hundred-million-pound lottery, and his nephew, who’s having an affair with his grandmother (the chav’s mom). It’s harrowing, cruel, funny. and maybe not totally mean-spirited toward the lower classes. The chav remains a chav, despite his fortune, and the secret affair leads to a horribly tense conclusion. It’s weird that I was nostalgic for Keith, the dart-playing criminal from London Fields, who was previously an ugly creation of Amis’.

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books – John Carey – I was hoping to record with Carey last fall, but we didn’t connect on his visit to NYC. I enjoyed his depiction of his relatively humble roots, the snobbery of Oxford, his improbable path there. It felt like a companion piece to those Clive James memoirs I read earlier in the year. What came through most, and what I was hoping to record with him about, is his sheer love of books and learning.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale – Joseph Conrad – I read this after my conversation with Jonathan Kranz (Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea), who gave a great/chilling take on the closing moments of chapter 3, when the not-quite-protagonist figures out the evil solution to the problem he faces. But this reading was also inspired by Clive James’ Latest Readings, where he found himself returning to Conrad’s novels. The dovetailing of nihilism, cynicism and domesticity makes the novel horrifying. Conrad’s prose, of course, makes it beautiful.

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Michael Dirda – Listen to our podcasts: 1, 2, 3 – This is a new collection of essays/columns by Michael Dirda, one of my favorite book reviewers. It’s a compilation of the regular pieces he wrote online for The American Conservative in 2012 and 2013. I’m a huge mark for Dirda’s writing about the bookish life, so this was right up my alley. However, unlike the David Gates book I mentioned a while back, I was smart enough not to rush through this one, spreading it out over a month or two instead. Dirda actually warns readers to do just that, optimally going with one column a week, just as they were published, so as to carry you along the seasons. I’m not that patient, so hey. I’ve had Dirda on my podcast three times now, and I always enjoy conversation with him about book collecting and retaining enthusiasm for a good novel, no matter how many books he’s had to review over the years. He captures that thrill here, while also digressing into personal anecdotes, as befits online writing.

Everyman – Philip Roth (r) – I read it just about every year, to remind myself about my mortality, a concept to which I steadfastly refuse to commit. In this instance, I read most of it on a train to Washington, so I was able to look wistfully out the window and watch the world zoom by.

Katherine Carlyle – Rupert Thomson – Download our 2014 podcast and our 2015 podcast – It shouldn’t work, but it does. Katherine Carlyle is about an 19-year-old girl who’s also 27. She was conceived by IVF, and frozen for 8 years before being implanted. The book opens with her narrating her conception and her cryopreserved half-life. It’s eerie and strange, and it keeps that tone throughout, as Katherine, now 19, decides to go missing and starts following arbitrary clues. She travels from Rome to Berlin, then Russia, then Norway, not exactly looking for something. It’d be easy for a narrative like this to turn random, or arbitrary, or aimless, but Rupert manages to evoke the lostness of this character, her need to figure out some sort of meaning for her singular life. It’s a weirdly beautiful book, and I was totally gripped by it.

Under the Poppy – Kathe Koja – Listen to our podcast – I had zero idea what to expect from this novel, but it sorta restored my faith in good, strong narrative. Koja’s novel centers on Rupert, a brothel-owner in 1870s Belgium (I think), and the family of performers, prostitutes, and muscle the make the place a success. His lost love, the brother of his business partner, returns to his life, and Rupert’s icy facade begins to melt. The lovers get involved in all sorts of intrigues, negotiating their way through a war that goes unnamed but wreaks havoc on the brothel. Koja’s writing is utterly compelling, and the characters are remarkably vivid. Their twisted moralities and devotion to performance add up to some fantastic plots and edge-of-one’s-seat storytelling. I ordered the second and third books of this trilogy (which she didn’t know would be a trilogy when she began it) immediately after finishing this one; I’m hoping I’ll get time to read them this spring, because for the first time in a great while, I can’t wait to find out what happens to these characters.

Memory Theater – Simon Critchley – podcast coming soon! – I’ve got no idea what to make of this, and I’m kinda glad the author had to bail on our pod-date. It’s a pseudo-fiction-memoir about him finding a weird astrological chart that tells his past and future. Since future predictions keep coming true, he starts arcing toward the day of his death. Unfortunately, I made that sound more interesting than it was in the book. It’s got a hint of a story, but it’s more about the limitations of philosophy, hermeticism and memory, I think. It’s a brief novel, so I wasn’t too overwhelmed/flummoxed, but I’m assuming a lot of it is coded references to various philosophers that I’m just too dumb/uneducated to get.

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World – David Jaher – Listen to our podcast – One of my favorite books in 2015. I raved about it in my podcast with the author, David Jaher. It’s a nonfiction book about a duel in the 1920s between Harry Houdini and a medium in upper-class Boston. Jaher does a great job of evoking the post-WWI period in the UK and US, the growth of the Spiritualism movement, the contest-craze that accompanied the Jazz Age, and the personalities of his major figures, while building up the tension of each seance meant to prove or debunk the psychic abilities of Mina Crandon. The book is 400 pages and intensely researched, but the prose will sweep you along, the chapters are brief, and the story is too unbelievable not to be true.

Montaigne – Stefan Zweig – My second Montaigne bio of the year! When I first learned about Zweig’s bio of Montaigne, written shortly before SZ killed himself in 1942, I looked high and low for a translation. Turns out that it hadn’t been translated into English, which made it some sort of iconic object for me. When Pushkin Press announced they were releasing it in UK/US, I plotted. I picked it up during my short London stay this fall, and began reading it on the train back to Heathrow. And that’s when I realized that it hadn’t remained untranslated all those years because of a plot to deny me of some sort of Holy Grail. Rather . . . it’s not that great. Zweig clearly hadn’t finished the book, with titles for only 2 chapters, and some repetitive passages. Still, I was interested to see how Zweig metabolized Montaigne’s essays and his approach toward death, in light of Zweig’s suicide. The bio wasn’t exactly an extended suicide note — that distinction goes to Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday — but it’s instructive to see how the late discovery of Montaigne can move such an intelligent but troubled mind as Zweig’s. So, not sorry that I read it, but I obviously added far too much weight to this book, because of the confluence of author & subject. That said, I’m glad that I can add that sorta weight to a book.

The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime – Harold Bloom – podcast coming soon! – Harold Bloom tells me (!) that this is his second-to-last book. In it, he explores “the American Sublime” in pairs of writers, starting with Whitman and Melville, whom he calls collectively “our American Homer.” There are lots of amazing insights into the works of the dozen authors he covers, although there were times that I was just along for the ride, like in his chapters on Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane. The love of poetry (and imaginative fiction, to a lesser extent) animates the book, but what I found most interesting were the little personal asides that Bloom makes throughout, referring to his decade-plus decline in health, his early teaching days, his situation at the moment of writing. It all felt like a weird version of Pale Fire, with these personal flourishes in the midst of literary exegesis. I mentioned this to Bloom when we recorded, and he told me that Pale Fire was Nabokov’s only good novel, and that he was a nasty piece of work.

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner – So, I got to nearly 45 years old without having read this. I’d say I’m embarrassed by that fact, but I’ve got plenty of lacunae in my readings. I mean, I didn’t get to Virgil until a couple of years ago, y’know? The only Faulkner I read before this was The Sound and The Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, which might not be great places to start, or at least might not give too good of an idea of what a storyteller Faulkner was. This one’s much more propulsive than I remember either of those books. The interiority of each of the narrators doesn’t overwhelm the reader, the way Quentin did in A,A! (as I recall it). The prose may not be as limpid as it is in that book, but the relatively stripped down style is something I find much more valuable as a reader.

The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories – Bruce Jay Friedman – Listen to our podcast (there may be another episode in 2016!) – It’s a new collection by one of my favorite writers! I only discovered Bruce Jay Friedman a few years ago, which is a shame, because I could’ve been writing 10th generation pastiches of his work for 20+ years now, had I encountered him earlier. I was afraid this collection would be similar to that David Gates on I read last summer, where the stories tended to blend into one another, but the characters, situations and stories vary so much in this collection that there was no sense of overlap. Which is funny, because so many of the stories are about neurotic Jews, but I guess I find those voices more distinct than Gates’ WASPs. BJF is one of the kings of black comedy, and he retains the throne with “A Fan Is A Fan,” a story where a Jewish writer in Nazi Germany learns that Goebbels is a fan and wants him to write a new piece for his paper. “The Strainer” has such a strong narrator that I was yearning for another 30 pages of story. The title story is a novella that felt like prime Friedman: a movie location scout goes to Israel during the 1990 Intifada, befriends a (possibly insane) Israeli Arab, and contrives to get him to the US. By “prime Friedman,” I mean that the story feels like it’s in the ’70s, in terms of sex, neurosis, and variety of Jewishness (maybe a little like a Woody Allen bit for the New Yorker), but I’m perfectly fine with that.

Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig – While I was working on the big Guest List episode of the podcast, I asked the great translator Anthea Bell what her favorite Stefan Zweig book/story is. She cited Beware of Pity and wrote, “It intrigues me, because he did not do happy endings, except that the main theme of this novel is so bleak, he seems to have included what is in effect a novella in itself (the courtship of the crippled girl’s parents) and an almost separate short story, the tale of how the narrator meets a former officer thrown out of his regiment on unspecified grounds, but marries a rich widow and is instantly socially acceptable again – and both these stories within a story do have happy endings. It’s as if he felt the tragic tale he is telling is too much for his readers, and even himself, without a little relief.” I’m still partial to Chess Story as my favorite Zweig, but I was swept up by the Pity protagonist’s unwilling descent into self-sacrifice. I flat-out devoured the second half of this novel on Christmas Eve. Short version of the plot: young Austrian officer in 1913 accidentally insults the crippled daughter of a local landowner, so he tries to make up for it. Yes, you can call it melodrama, but Zweig is so psychologically astute, it’s easy to see how he became such a popular writer in his prime (and why Thomas Mann hated him). Listen to my Zweig podcast with George Prochnik, and listen to my podcast with Anthea Bell!

Drawing Blood – Molly Crabapple – Listen to our podcast • I read this for an upcoming podcast. I didn’t like it. The writer chronicles her life up until around 31, and I admit that my experience on the podcast has taught me that most people under 50 don’t really have a clue what the cycles of life are like. Anyway, it’s an eventful life, with Molly spending time as a tumbleweed in the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris at like 17, posing naked for GWCs, performing burlesque, getting an abortion, being the resident artist at a decadent club for investment bankers, enjoying the NYC party version of success, mid-financial boom, working on her art all the while. She has an awakening of sorts while painting murals for another decadent club in London, and gets involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the narrator’s perspective is always in terms of herself. I just didn’t feel like there was much reflection, and little sympathy for other human beings, until a few pages before the end, when she meets a military handler in Gitmo. Other people come off as concepts or plot triggers or, really, props for her art. There are some good bits about the perils of not having money, but there’s no explanation for where money does come from at various key points. Also, the influence of her parents is cited in the first few pages, and then they vanish from the book almost entirely. No word on what help they may have offered her, how they may have perceived her, what conversations they had about art, activism, etc. Also, I’m trying to figure out if “shock tropes” is a pun or a typo. Now, a smart pal of mine liked the book, and contended that the lack of internality was a function of her journalistic approach, so maybe I’m just biased. I’m kinda bummed that this is the last book in the post, but them’s the breaks. I’m currently re-reading The Leopard and just started The Friends of Eddie Coyle on Dec. 30, so 2016 should start off strong.



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