Episode 216 – George Prochnik

Virtual Memories Show 216: George Prochnik

“Scholem teaches us that the Jewish tradition is so capacious it could embrace its own subversion.”

George Prochnik returns to The Virtual Memories Show to talk about his new book, Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem (Other Press). (We talked about Stefan Zweig back in 2014.) We get into the life of Jewish mysticism’s greatest scholar, how the theories of Zionism butted up against the reality of Palestine and Israel, the alchemical friendship of Scholem and Walter Benjamin, the way Kabbalah serves as the hidden, subterranean layer of Judaism, Scholem’s example of a life lived in resistance, the great contrast of Scholem with Prochnik’s previous biographical subject, Stefan Zweig, our author’s addiction to Jerusalem and the books he hasn’t escaped in 30 years, and whether Walt Whitman was an intuitive American Kabbalist! Give it a listen! And go buy Stranger in a Strange Land (and The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, both from Other Press)!

“Scholem explored the notion that Kabbalah is a meditation on Jewish history itself, not just an intra-theological discussion between rabbis, but a historically aware and subversive to struggle with the Jewish exile of 1492. If Jews suffered this extraordinary fate, how does redemption work against that? His interpretation of Kabbalah confers on the individual an enormous responsibility and capacity to participate in the healing of the universe.”

“Zweig had something like ‘Lot’s Wife Syndrome’; if you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re running, you’re always going to be looking over your shoulder.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes, like my previous conversation with George!

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About our Guest

George Prochnik’s previous book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, received the National Jewish Book Award for Biography/Memoir in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize in the UK. Prochnik is also the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (2010), and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology (2006). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bookforum and the LA Review of Books, and is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine. His new book is Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem.

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. Prochnik’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. Photos of Mr. Prochnik and his family by me. The family one is on my instagram, and the solo pic (from our 2014 show) is on my flickr.

Podcast – Success is Embarrassing

Virtual Memories Show:
Wayne White and Mimi Pond –
Success is Embarrassing

“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had three separate careers: freelance illustrator, then set designer, puppetteer and animator, and now fine artist. I just bluffed my way into every one of ’em.'” –Wayne White

Wayne & LBJ

Artist Wayne White joins the show to talk about how his life and art have changed since he starred in the documentary Beauty is Embarrassing (which, if you haven’t seen it, go do so now now NOW!). We talk about the allure and absurdity of hubris, how much of the movie-Wayne maps onto the real version, how LA influenced his word-paintings, how he balances art and commerce, what happens to the giant puppets that he makes for installations, what he thinks of Jeff Koons, why he’s moving toward art-as-public-spectacle, what art form he’s dying to get back to, what his next big project is, when he’s gonna get rid of that beard, and more! Give it a listen!

“Cartooning is the hardest craft I ever did, because it’s no-shit-everything-has-to-work. With a painting, you can fudge things. Everything in a cartoon has to work, like a car, or it won’t run. I learned a lot about craft and discipline from cartooning, way more than painting.” –Wayne White

But first, we have an interview with Wayne’s wife, Mimi Pond! I interviewed Mimi last May (go listen to it!) at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, shortly after the release of her graphic memoir, Over Easy. This time around, we talk about the success of the book, the surprises of the book tour, how the sequel’s progressing, how it felt to win a PEN Center USA Literary Award, and more! (There are also some overlapping questions, and I thought you guys might dig hearing their different perspectives on topics like LA vs. NYC, and becoming empty-nesters.)

“In LA, it’s the law that you must be engaged in writing a screenplay with your hairdresser, pool boy, personal trainer, life coach, dog walker, or yoga instructor.” –Mimi Pond

Mimi also at the drawing table

Enjoy the conversations! Check out more pix from my visit to their home! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guests

Wayne White is an American artist, art director, illustrator, puppeteer, and much, much more. Born and raised in Chattanooga, Wayne has used his memories of the South to create inspired works for film, television, and the fine art world. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, Wayne traveled to New York City where he worked as an illustrator for the East Village Eye, New York Times, Raw Magazine, and the Village Voice. In 1986, Wayne became a designer for the hit television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and his work was awarded with three Emmys. After traveling to Los Angeles with his wife, Mimi Pond, Wayne continued to work in television and designed sets and characters for shows such as Shining Time Station, Beakman’s World, Riders In The Sky, and Bill & Willis. He also worked in the music video industry, winning Billboard and MTV Music Video Awards as an art director for seminal music videos including The Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight and Peter Gabriel’s Big Time.

More recently, Wayne has had great success as a fine artist and has created paintings and public works that have been shown all over the world. His most successful works have been the world paintings featuring oversized, three-dimensional text painstakingly integrated into vintage landscape reproductions. The message of the paintings is often thought-provoking and almost always humorous, with Wayne pointing a finger at vanity, ego, and his memories of the South. Wayne has also received great praise for several public works he has created, including a successful show at Rice University where he built the world’s largest George Jones puppet head for a piece called ‘Big Lectric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep.’ He was the subject of Neil Berkeley’s 2012 documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing.

Mimi Pond is a cartoonist, illustrator and writer. She’s created comics for the LA Times, Seventeen Magazine, National Lampoon, and many other publications. Her TV credits include the first full-length episode of The Simpsons, and episodes for the shows Designing Women and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. She lives in LA with her husband, the artist Wayne White. She is currently working on the sequel to her 2014 graphic memoir, Over Easy.

Credits: This episode’s music is I’m Ragged but I’m Right by George Jones. The conversation was recorded in Wayne and Mimi’s dining nook on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photos of Mr. White and Ms. Pond by me.

Podcast: Fire and Bleak House

Virtual Memories – season 2 episode 11
Boaz Roth – Fire and Bleak House

“I can’t be made to believe that they’re just things. Books are friends. And sometimes enemies.”

It’s time for a new episode of The Virtual Memories Show!


“I’m dumber now at 44 than I was at 24. But when I got to 74 I was hoping to see all the stupid things I thought I knew in my margin notes.”

In this one, my brother Boaz Roth talks about rebuilding his library after a house fire, the joys of Bleak House, the lasting influence of Orwell’s essay, Inside the Whale, the Tolstoyan qualities of Lost, and what he’s learned over 18 years of teaching literature. Oh, and I offer up The Key To Quentin Tarantino’s Movies.

“The Heart of Darkness is the one book I hate the most to read, and it’s the one indispensable book I think everyone needs to read.”

You’ll also find commentary on the recent spate of superhero movies, the wonders of Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, being a bad friend to your books, the shock of actually learning something from a David Brooks column, and how Christopher Nolan ripped off his own movie for that new Batman flick, among a pretty wide range of topics.

“Is there an inflection point where we stop worrying about perfecting the things we do for ourselves and start thinking about how we can make things perfect for others? Not just the people we love, but the people we’re connected to by paycheck.”

Enjoy the conversation!

This is part 2 of The Bat Mitzvah Tapes, recorded during a trip to St. Louis in August for my niece’s bat mitzvah. Last week, I posted a conversation with Boaz’s mother-in-law, Lyn Ballard, about literary pilgrimages, what it’s like to read Huck Finn at the age of 5, and the books that made her who she is. Check that one out.

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Credits: This episode’s music is Thunder Road by the Boss. I recorded the intro on a Blue Yeti mic into Audacity, and the conversation with was recorded on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4N recorder. All editing was done in Garage Band. Have mics, will travel!