“Middle age is such a perfect term. You’re right in the middle of life. You could not be more in the middle of everything. Your parents are old, your kids are little. Life is just swirling around you.”
Time for another LIVE episode of the Virtual Memories Show! Jennifer Hayden (The Story of My Tits) and Summer Pierre (Paper Pencil Life) join us at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ to talk about comics, cancer, middle age, art vs. work, learning compassion through memoir, and more! Give it a listen!
“With my mom dying, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna die? Great, I work well with deadlines!'”
According to Labyrinth Books’ promo for the event, “Art is not something we create in isolation. Art happens between the diaper change and the trip to the vet. Between the car accident and the roast chicken. Every day we fight to seize a little more art from the jaws of this wild existence. And if we’re lucky we catch the spark while it’s rising. Autobiographical cartoonists and graphic novelists Jennifer Hayden, and Summer Pierre discuss their graphic lives with moderator Gil Roth of the Virtual Memories Show.” It’s a great conversation about making art in the interstices of life, so go listen! (And go buy The Story of My Tits!)
About our Guests
Jennifer Hayden came to comics from fiction-writing and children’s book illustration. Her new book, The Story of My Tits (Top Shelf, 2015), is a 352-page graphic memoir and breast cancer narrative. Her previous book, the autobiographical collection Underwire (Top Shelf, 2011), was excerpted in the Best American Comics 2013 and named one of “the best comics by women” by DoubleX. She is a member of Activate (the premier webcomics collective in New York City), where she posts her webcomic S’crapbook, which earned a Notable listing in the Best American Comics 2012. Jennifer currently posts the daily diary strip Rushes at thegoddessrushes.blogspot.com. Her comics have appeared in print anthologies such as The Activate Primer, Cousin Corrine’s Reminder, and The Strumpet. After hours, Jennifer plays electric fiddle with The Rocky Hill Ramblers and The Spring Hill Band. She lives in Central New Jersey with her husband, their two college-age children, two cats, and the dog.
Summer Pierre is a cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and teacher living in the Hudson Valley, NY. She makes an autobiographical comic called Paper Pencil Life, and is the author of The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week (which the Boston Globe called, “A virtual bible for artists and day jobs”) and Great Gals: Inspired Ideas for Living a Kick-Ass Life. Her writing and art have appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, The Nashville Review & Booth Literary Journal, among other places.
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 Labyrinth Books in Princeton on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones and a Blue enCORE 100 microphone feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
“My art has become good enough to tell the stories I want to tell. I’m a broken down punk rock geezer, but I’m still a relatively young cartoonist. I’ve only been doing long-form comics since 2010.”
Live from CXC! Derf Backderf made a mid-career course correction, going from alt-weekly cartoons to full-length graphic novels like My Friend Dahmer and his new book Trashed (Abrams Comicarts). In this live podcast, we talk about that transition, how he became political years after being a political cartoonist, the impact of Ohio’s rustbelt disintegration on his worldview, and the surprise of his success in Europe. How do you go from garbageman to winner of the Angouleme prize? Find out from Derf Backderf in this week’s Virtual Memories Show! Give it a listen! (And go buy Trashed!)
“The most surprising and one of the most personally satisfying thing to me has been the success I’ve had in Europe, especially France. . . . I walked around Paris last week just laughing; I can’t believe my luck.”
We also talk about the glory days of alt-weekly comics, the mental gymnastics necessary to write Jeffrey Dahmer as a human being, Derf’s observations and adventures in the French comics market, why he decided not to do a book about his cancer experience, how he made more cartoonist-friends after Joyce Brabner kicked him in the ass about being a recluse, and why it’s so much fun to develop good characters who can drive a story. Go listen!
“I did an interview with a big national newspaper in France . . . and the opening question was, ‘We know the rust belt for three things: LeBron James, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and you.'”
About our Guest
Derf Backderf was born and raised in a small town in Ohio, outside of Akron. He began his comix career as a political cartoonist, first at The Ohio State University, then at a dying daily paper in South Florida. He was fired for, as the editor put it, “general tastelessness.” Derf then gravitated to the free weekly press where his cranky, freeform comic strip, The City, appeared in over 140 papers during its 24-year run. As weekly papers began to wither, Derf moved to graphic novels, starting with Punk Rock and Trailer Parks (SLG Publishing, 2010). He followed that with the international bestseller, My Friend Dahmer (Abrams Comicarts, 2012) which was awarded an Angoulême Prize and named to the American Library Assocation’s list of The 100 Greatest Graphic Novels. His latest book is Trashed (Abrams Comicarts, 2015), a rollicking Rustbelt epic about garbagemen, a career Derf himself enjoyed when he dropped out of college for a spell. His books have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Dutch and Korean. Derf also won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his political cartoons, and has been nominated for Eisner, Ignatz, Harvey and Rueben Awards. He lives in Cleveland, for reasons he can no longer recall.
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 Cultural Arts Center in Columbus, OH during Cartoon Crossroads Columbus in October 2015 on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of me & Mr. Backderf by Amy Roth.
“I want to be working, making comics, and knowing that the thing I’m doing right now is the thing I should be doing and I shouldn’t feel guilty about doing it. I’ve been able to keep that going much of the time for the last 20 years, and it’s kinda great.”
Is Scott McCloud comics’ leading theorist or a deranged lunatic? Find out in this lengthy conversation we recorded during SPX 2015! Scott talks about applying (and forgetting) the lessons of Understanding Comics in his new book, The Sculptor (First Second), the massive implications of crowdfunding for cartoonists and other creators, the problems with ‘balance’ in comics pages, his rebellion against Facebook, the Laurie Anderson model of comics, how he defines success, how to keep a happy marriage inside the comics world, and more! Give it a listen!
“We’ve never seen the consumer dollar at full strength. In traditional print markets, somebody spends a dollar on my work, and I get 10 cents at the end of that chain, that massive army of middlemen. Now we’re seeing what kind of world happens when the consumer dollar stays closer to a dollar. That army of consumers really has an enormous power to put your boat afloat.”
We also talk about his next book (on visual communication and education), his strengths and weaknesses as a cartoonist, making a 500-page comic book that readers could tackle in one sitting, why Reinventing Comics was like “trying to eat 10 lbs. of potato salad”, how every success story in cartooning is unique, the differences in working in print vs. working for the screen, and trying to be a scholar for the first time. Now go listen!
“Craig Thompson’s Blankets is probably off the hook now, because I finally did a comic even more sentimental. So now I made Craig look like Gary Panter.”
We mention a few books in this episode. Here they are:
- The Sculptor – Scott McCloud
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art – Scott McCloud
- Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form – Scott McCloud
- Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels – Scott McCloud
- Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 – Scott McCloud
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – Art Spiegelman
- Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
- The Complete Elfquest Volume 1 – Wendy Pini
- The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller
- Watchmen – Alan Moore
- Beautiful Darkness – Kerascoët, Fabien Vehlmann
- Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir – Roz Chast
- Kill My Mother – Jules Feiffer
- Blankets – Craig Thompson
- Here – Richard McGuire
- Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) – Matthew Farber
- The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
- Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir – Tom Hart
- Essays – Orwell
- Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything – Joshua Foer
- How Music Works – David Byrne
- Runaway – Alice Munro
- Blonde: A Novel – Joyce Carol Oates
About our Guest
Scott McCloud is the award-winning author of Understanding Comics, Making Comics, Zot!, The Sculptor, and many other fiction and non-fiction comics spanning 30 years. An internationally-recognized authority on comics and visual communication, technology, and the power of storytelling, McCloud has lectured at Google, Pixar, Sony, and the Smithsonian Institution. There’s a more extensive and funny bio at his site.
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 during the Small Press Expo at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel on a Zoom H2n Handy Recorder and a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. McCloud by me.
“This Kickstarter, this is me, having seen my incredibly negative narrative and hopeless sense of the future just blasted out of the water. I feel like this week has changed my life.”
Dan Perkins (better known as Tom Tomorrow) is celebrating 25 years of his weekly political cartoon, This Modern World, with a kick-ass Kickstarter project to collect all of his strips in a two-volume, slipcased edition! Shockingly (to him, but not the rest of us), his fans hit his funding target in less than 24 hours, and more than doubled it by press time. (It’s open through August 4, 2015, so there’s time to make a contribution!) I caught up with a flabbergasted Perkins to talk about the resounding level of fan support for the project, the detective/archeologist work of compiling 25 years’ worth of his strips, the trepidation he had about looking at his early work, how This Modern World changed after the advent of the internet, the ways in which his cartoons work as a coded diary of his life, how the validation of this Kickstarter experience has changed his view of the future, and more! Give it a listen! (If you want to skip my rambling intro, you should jump to the 8:45 mark.)
“Charles Schulz said if he were a better writer, he’d be a novelist, and if he were a better artist, he’d be a painter, but he’s kinda good at both, so he’s a cartoonist. I’ve always held onto that.”
We also talk about his cartooning influences, his early attempt at doing a mainstream daily comic strip, his favorite contemporary political cartoonists (and his apologies for any influence he had on them), what he wants to do next, how he fights against burnout on a weekly basis, why having to make a comic about a terrible event is like sewer-work, why a Trump presidential candidacy is no fun for his comics, the way This Modern World served as a pirate radio signal, and why Pearl Jam lent him a hand on his Kickstarter (which, as I mentioned, is open through August 4, if you want to take part)!
“The internet has given mankind low-grade telepathy. We are now in this low-grade hive-mind where we have access to the darkest and most disturbing thoughts of many of our fellow humans. I think it used to be easier to maintain illusions about humanity.”
About our Guest
Tom Tomorrow’s (Dan Perkins’) weekly cartoon, This Modern World, appears online at The Nation, and Daily Kos, and in approximately 80 papers across the country. His cartoons have also been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, Esquire, The Economist, and numerous other publications.
He was the 2013 recipient of the Herblock Prize, and was awarded the first place Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Cartooning in 1998 and again in 2003. He was also a finalist for the Pulitze Prize in 2015. He has also been awarded the first place Media Alliance Meritorious Achievement Award for Excellence in Journalism, the first place Society of Professional Journalists’ James Madison Freedom of Information Award, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, and the Association for Education in Journalism Professional Freedom and Responsibility Award. He is the author of 10 cartoon anthologies and one children’s book, and in 2009 collaborated with the band Pearl Jam to create the artwork for their Backspacer album.
Credits: This episode’s music is Just Breathe by Pearl Jam. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Perkins’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Perkins by me.
“Everybody was looking for the next van Gogh . . . so that opened up the space for anybody who put two sticks together to be a sculptor, or two dabs of paint on a canvas to be a painter: ‘Don’t miss him! This man is a genius!’ You’re not going to catch the next van Gogh by just throwing everything on a wall.”
Jonah Kinigstein is having a moment . . . at 92! The painter and cartoonist has published his first collection, The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Tower of Babel in the “Art” World (FU Press) and had an exhibition of his work at the Society of Illustrators in the past few months, and he’s just getting warmed up! We met at his studio to talk about the abysmal and unredeemable state of modern art, and why he elected to stay in the representative mode of painting despite the allure and rewards of conceptual art. He also talks about a near-century of New York City, his glory years in Paris and Rome, his disenchantment with the National Academy, and more! Give it a listen!
“Here I was, studying anatomy . . . and there’s a man who’s dripping on the floor! I’ve got a lot of drippings on the floor; I think I’ll put them up!”
Jonah’s got plenty of venom to spare for artists like Pollock, de Kooning, and Hirst, but also talks about his great artistic influences, his reasons for pasting angry anti-modern-art cartoons on the walls in SoHo, why he paints on wood instead of canvas, and making a living designing department store windows and point-of-sale whiskey displays. It’s a fascinating life, and I’m glad we had the chance to talk! You can check out my photos from Jonah’s studio, including several of his panels, over here.
About our Guest
Born in 1923 in Coney Island, Jonah’s early influences were discovered during visits to the Metropolitan Museum- “When I really saw the old masters, it blew my mind, of course.” He attended Cooper Union for a year before he was drafted into the Army, serving from 1942 – 1945. Soon after, Jonah moved to Paris where he spent time at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, conversing with other aspiring artists, exchanging ideas, exhibiting his work, seeing established artists, and generally soaking up a fertile creative environment. He exhibited in several shows including the Salon D’Automne, Salon de Mai, and the Salon des Moins de Trente Ans, and had one-man shows in the Galerie Breteau and Les Impressions D’Art. After Paris, Jonah moved to Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship and studied at the La Schola Di Belles Artes. After a year, he returned to the U.S. and exhibited his paintings at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan. Like so many painters, he was unable to make a living solely from painting, so he worked in the commercial art world and did freelance illustration and design. Throughout this time, Jonah’s commitment to his own art never wavered, and he continued to paint and occasionally exhibit.
Credits: This episode’s music is Sous Le Ciel De Paris by Edith Piaf. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Kinigstein’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 Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Kinigstein by me.
At the end of last year’s writeup, I mentioned that I was 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale. I bailed on it; just wasn’t feeling it, which may have been due to reading it on my Kindle vs. print. I also mentioned that I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, James Salter’s Light Years, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. How’d I fare? I didn’t get to Sebald or The Radetzky March, I gave up on Light Years after 100 pages, did read Bleeding Edge, Stern and the whole Divine Comedy, and never got back to Kahneman’s book.
Click on the pic above to embiggen
Reading for my Virtual Memories Show podcast dominated my book selection this year. Around two-thirds of the books I read were by guests or were for background for our interviews. I’m not complaining; a lot of them were really good, and I may never have gotten around to them without the impetus of the show! There were some periods where I was chasing, or just trying to stay afloat with reading. That said, when I finally got ahead of the guest list in April, I took it upon myself to read Dante, which of course turned out to be fantastic.
Anyway, I read more than 50 books this year, but not all of it was Dante-sized. I still haven’t made an appreciable dent in my library, which keeps creeping up as new pod-guest-books come in, along with my own purchases and gifts from pals. I’ve asked our handyman to build me a couple of book carts, so I can pretend that there’s enough shelf space downstairs for everything.
The list below only includes prose work. I feel like including comics would be cheating, but I do have to say that one of the best books I read last year was Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about her parents’ deaths in their mid-90s. If you’re using this as a shopping list, definitely put that one at the top. If you read smart comics, you should also check out Here, by Richard McGuire, a full-length version of the groundbreaking six-page comic he made in 1989. You’ll never look at a corner of your living room the same again. (Don’t take my word for it; here’s Chris Ware’s take on Here.) And give Over Easy, by Mimi Pond, a read. (I did a podcast with Roz Chast, and pair with Mimi Pond. Here’s the one with Roz, and part 1 and part 2 with Mimi.)
Unlike past years, I’m not going to take this space to ruminate on midlife, mortality, the pleasure of books, etc. Well, it’s all about the pleasure of books, I suppose. Enjoy, and good reading in 2015!
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Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry – Rachel Hadas – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Willard Spiegelman. It’s a memoir about the period in which Rachel’s husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a beautiful book that details both her husband’s decline and the poetry that helped sustain Rachel through that gradual, terrible loss. I’m a poetry imbecile; that is, I don’t spend enough time with poetry, because of my preference for novels, but I was pretty immersed in this one. Listen to our podcast!
Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora – Emily Raboteau – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Peter Trachtenberg. It’s the author’s exploration of race as she travels the world. She’s a very light-skinned black woman, at least by American standards. In Jamaica, she’s considered white, and in Africa, she’s something else completely. It’s a compelling book about identity and blackness in America. Listen to our podcast!
Comics Art – Paul Gravett – Read it for the podcast, in time for a business trip to England, where I connected with the author. It’s a good overview of the comics form, without the America-centricity that can crop up in that sort of survey. The book was commissioned as part of the Art series for the Tate, and it does have a sort of museum aspect to it, but I mean that in a good way. Paul is so so knowledgeable about comics, and it was a pleasure to read the book and then talk with him for something like four hours over an afternoon. Listen to our podcast!
Black Cracker – Josh Alan Friedman – Read it for the podcast, as part of my “Capturing The Other Friedmans” series of interviews. It’s a fictionalized memoir of Josh’s childhood, where he wound up as the only white student in an all-black school in the ’60s. It’s hysterically funny, but I was a little nervous about people noticing the cover while I was reading it on a British Railways ride. The book was particularly interesting because I read it after reading Josh Alan’s youngest brother’s book about their childhood (Barracuda in the Attic), their dad’s memoir (Lucky Bruce, which I reread soon after this), and hearing middle brother Drew’s stories about childhood. It’s not like a Rashomon situation, but each rendition creates a fuller picture of the tensions and dynamics of these kids and their parents. I’d love to get all the family together for a group interview, but I’m afraid it could lead to bloodshed, possibly mine. Listen to our podcast!
About Harry Towns
The Current Climate
Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir (r)
A Mother’s Kisses – Bruce Jay Friedman – Read it all for the podcast, but also because I made the discovery of Bruce Jay Friedman’s fiction in 2013. (As you may or may not recall, I wrote, “I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. . . . I finally found the writer who could tell funny, witty, engaging stories about men (Jews and gentiles) without having to draw a literary-cosmic conclusion about the universe.”) Stern and A Mother’s Kisses supported the claim Bruce’s son made to me, that their dad was Philip Roth before Philip Roth. The two books of Harry Town stories, About Harry Town and The Current Climate, helped me think more about my Abe Loesser stories. Several of the chapters in them mirror episodes from BJF’s memoir, Lucky Bruce, which I re-read once we were definitely on to record a show. I was interested in how Bruce rewrote the stories of his life for fiction and for memoir. We didn’t go into that topic extensively during our conversation, but it did give me a sort of license to play more with my experiences and bend them out of strict re-telling and into art. Listen to our podcast!
The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) – Technically not for the podcast, although it did serve as background when I interviewed George Prochnik a little while later. This was the new translation of Stefan Zweig’s memoir, which he sent out to his publisher shortly before his suicide in 1942. It paints a magical picture of pre-WWI Vienna, and a harrowing picture of Austria after that war. Some of the most evocative material is about Zweig’s own development, and what it was like to live in a time when one could travel the world without a passport. The New York city segment is a joy. It’s a remarkable book. I don’t know if there’s a “key” to understanding Zweig’s suicide, but contrasting the world of yesterday with the future that was unfolding — even with an Allied win over the Axis — it was clear that Zweig didn’t want to live through another reconstruction or face a bureaucratized future. Listen to my Zweig podcast with George Prochnik.
Visible City – Tova Mirvis – Read it for the podcast. This was pitched by the publisher, and I had some reticence about it; from the description they gave, it sounds like Mommy Lit, which is not my thing. It had more going on than that, lucky for me, in terms of urban exploration and struggling with Judaism. I was bummed to find that the closing line of my short story about the High Holidays was mirrored in her book, as a minor line describing a character, but I refused to give it up. Listen to our podcast, even though I didn’t do a good job on this one, for a variety of reasons.
The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 – DG Myers – Read it for the podcast. The first non-fiction / non-memoir of this year’s reading. The late Prof. Myers (he died in September 2014) writes a wonderfully readable history of creative writing programs, from their inception to the mutant self-replicating form they’ve evolved into. It’s an illuminating piece of scholarship about a system that seems broken at first glance (that is, treating creative writing as an accredited program leads to teaching it for the sake of making more formulaic writers and/or more creative writing teachers); with an understanding of its history, we see far better how it ended up like this. Note: I’ve never taken a creative writing class. Listen to our podcast!
Hyde – Daniel Levine – Read it for the podcast. It’s not exactly a revisionist take on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, not like that book about Ahab’s wife. Rather, it tells the classic story from Hyde’s perspective. I was suspicious about the premise (it was another book pitched by the publisher), but it’s really well written and Levine does a great job of making sure his story fits into the mechanics of the source story. Giving voice to Hyde — and not going with the easy out of making him the unrestrained id of the Victorian era — Levine manages to create a tense horror story that we thought we knew. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald – I picked this up on the suggestion of DG Myers. I’d never read Fitzgerald, and zoomed through this one over the course of an afternoon. It’s gorgeous and understated, and apparently that’s a hallmark of her work. I picked up the two Modern Library collections of her work recently, and plan on reading more of her work. I’m awfully sad that I won’t get new recommendations from Prof. Myers, but he left a wealth of writing about literature on his blog over the years.
The Cold Song – Linn Ullmann – Read it for the podcast. It’s a lot of books: a murder mystery, a fairy tale, a family drama. I was swept up by the fragility of the characters, the compulsion to lie, the unendingness of a family’s grief, the ways in which loved ones fail to communicate. It’s set in Norway, but it almost feels like another world. It’s such a strange and compelling book, while seeming “normal” on its face, that I can’t really come up with the right words to describe it, beyond “You should read this.” Listen to our podcast: part 1 and part 2!
Mortality – Christopher Hitchens – Another suggestion of DG Myers, who was working on a book about his cancer experience. In our conversation, he lamented that Hitchens died so soon after his cancer diagnosis, because he hoped to see more writing from Hitchens about the process of dying. Ironically, Myers himself died far sooner than he expected. He thought he had another one or two years of life when we spoke in March, but he died six months later. And now those of us who knew him can lament that he too died before he could tell us more about Life on Planet Cancer (the title he settled on for his book). Hitchens’ essays come from the incredibly specific experience of his cancer, but his graceful writing brings it to life.
Not pictured: This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses – Lynne Sharon Schwartz – Read it for the podcast. We met at Bennington in 2013 when I drove up to interview David Gates; they’re both part of the Low Residency MFA faculty. These essays remind me very much of Phillip Lopate’s work, and it makes me wonder if that’s coincidental or if there’s a sort of generational approach to the personal essay that they both characterize. Probably the former. The centerpiece of the book is an essay about her heart surgery, and it’s digressive and detailed and a wonder to read. Listen to our podcast!
All That Is – James Salter – Likely the final book by a great American author I didn’t get around to until 2013. That year, I read A Sport and a Pastime and Solo Faces, and felt stupid that I’d missed out on a hybrid of Hemingway and Henry Miller all these years. His new book extends to cover the shape of a man’s life, with its myriad mistakes and friendships and failed loves and admission of age. For some reason, I felt echoes with Philip Roth’s Everyman, although Salter’s language is more beautiful than Roth’s.
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: Inferno
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 2: Purgatorio
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 3: Paradiso – Dante (tr. Durling) – As I mentioned in the intro, I got ahead of the podcast-reading list around April, so I took the opportunity to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. I picked this translation on the recommendation of one of my tutors at St. John’s College. It’s a prose translation with line breaks that mirror the poem; he and another tutor I consulted with contended that it’s better to go with a prose translation than a rhyming one, because Dante’s Italian is almost impossible not to rhyme, and it forces a false rhythm on the text. Anyway, it deserves all the accolades, and I weirdly found Purgatorio to be more enjoyable than the Inferno. I think it’s because the souls in Purgatory, even while they suffer awful torments, have hope that they’ll complete their purgation and ascend to Paradise, while the souls in Hell have abandoned all hope. Paradiso, I have to say, was the least enjoyable of the three poems, probably due to being the least concrete. Its abstractness and focus on the church’s founders/pioneers didn’t resonate with me the way the suffering and the stories of the lost did.
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World – George Prochnik – Read it for the podcast. One of the best books I read this year. It’s a biography covering Stefan Zweig’s final years, leading up to his suicide in 1942, but it’s also about Prochnik’s father’s flight from Austria. I found it to be a beautiful work, meditating on the meanings of exile, Zweig’s inability to cope with refugee life in New York despite his privileged position, and the culture that was lost with the rise of Nazism. Prochnik travels to many of Zweig’s waypoints during his last years — England, Manhattan, Westchester, Petropolis — but the book’s most haunting moments come in Austria. It’s a fantastic book (and one I would’ve read regardless of the podcast possibilities). Listen to our podcast!
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson – Read it for the podcast. An enjoyable novel set in 17th century Florence. It’s got sex, murder, religious hypocrisy (hence the need for secrecy), art and aesthetics, plague tableaux, and a true-life lead character in wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo. I’d never read Thomson before, and apparently his hallmark is jumping from genre to genre and style to style. I’m thinking I need to check out more of his work, but as you can see from the rest of the list, I was a little busy this year. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Solaris – Stanislaw Lem (re) – I reread this one on a whim, just to recapture that feeling of loneliness, of the mystery of experience and the failings of communication. I lead an exciting life.
Nose Down, Eyes Up – Merrill Markoe – Read it for the podcast. It’s a fun novel about a 40-something layabout in LA (named Gil) who realizes one day that he can understand what dogs are saying and communicate with them. Merrill does a great job portraying the world as perceived by dogs, in terms of how they’d logically understand the behavior of humans. They can’t for the life of ’em figure out why we keep picking up their crap and putting it in bags. Listen to our podcast!
Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon – Like many of his readers, I’d wondered if Pynchon would write about “modern times,” as in post-9/11. The closest he came to his own era was Vineland, published in 1990 and taking place in 1984. This one treats of the months before and after 9/11, and it’s as weird, elliptical, funny, not-quite-sensical as I’ve come to expect from his novels. There were segments where this one seemed to overlap with William Gibson’s post-9/11 novels, and I think that’s partly because of WG’s status as a Pynchon novitiate, but also because the general response to these times by any novelist with a Big Perspective is to get caught up in the wheels within wheels of conspiracy, malignity and neglect by Forces Larger Than Us. I enjoyed the heck out of this one, and it made for an interesting segue from Inherent Vice, which takes place in the late ’60s and sorta has to shoe-horn the internet (and its ramifications) into a world that really had No Idea What Was Coming.
At Last – Edward St. Aubyn – This series, the Patrick Melrose novels, was recommended to me by Peter Trachtenberg at the end of 2013. Then there was a big New Yorker profile on the author and the ways in which his abusive childhood is mirrored in Melrose’s stories. I devoured the novels in pretty short order. They’re almost a sort of A Dance to the Music of Time, but with a smaller cast of characters and history, and with child-rape at the heart of the whole shebang. I enjoyed the first novel the most, mainly because of the utter vividness of Melrose’s monstrous rapist of a father. The second novel, in which Melrose goes on a drug bender while in New York to claim his father’s ashes, is a close runner-up. A lot of “writing as therapy” can make for bad art, but St. Aubyn does a wonderful job of turning the horrific circumstances of his childhood into a compelling series of novels. They’re necessarily brief; I think too much time in any of these tales would grow tiresome, even if there are characters with whom we’d like to spend more time. I’m sure there are plenty of nuances of British culture and class that I missed, but the acid portraits are still pretty amazing.
The Incentive of the Maggot: Poems
The Great Wave: Poems – Ron Slate – Read them for the podcast. Every year, I tell myself that I need to read more poetry, so I was happy to book a podcast with Ron and let myself slow down to read these two collections of his work. I enjoyed the first one more, and he concurred that it’s a better collection, mainly because the lines are given more room to breathe. Many of the poems are grounded in a sort of working life to which I was able to relate: not the labor of the service biz or the factory, but one of Business, where the seeming romance of travel can wear thin and one looks for minor bits of magic to keep from growing numb. Listen to our podcast!
My Face for the World to See – Alfred Hayes – This was recommended to me by Phillip Lopate as one of the best books he’d read in 2013. It’s a novel about a New York writer in Hollywood who falls into a relationship with a suicidal gal. (As in, he first sees her when she’s trying to kill herself by walking into the Pacific.) It’s in a sorta laconic style, where the events, even as they grow more dramatic, aren’t treated with great intensity, even though the narrator is struggling to cope with the relationship. It made me think I need to go re-read Nathanael West next year.
The Horned Man – James Lasdun – Read it for the podcast (we haven’t recorded yet). The novel’s a psychodrama about a college literature professor who may or may not be framed for several murders. There’s a harassment aspect to the professor’s history that gets really weird because, a bunch of years later, the author was accused by a student of harassment and stealing her novel. He wrote a memoir about it called Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, which I’ll be reading before we get together to record. This novel’s enjoyable in its strangeness; once the unreliability of the narrator is established, it’s a little difficult not to fall into a guessing game of “what really happened,” but Lasdun takes the story away from that easy out and proceeds into a surreal conclusion. Podcast coming in 2015!
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor – Jonathan Rose – Read it for the podcast. This is a literary biography of Winston Churchill, and Prof. Rose does a marvelous job of connecting the books and plays WC read and enjoyed with his major life points and policy decisions. I didn’t know all that much about WC’s early career, and this book helps illuminate that period of his life along with the aforementioned literary influences (of course, it’s up to debate as to how influential those literary influences were on WC’s decisions, but Rose makes plausible scenarios for many of them). I was glad to learn that Churchill was among the first science fiction politicians. Listen to our podcast!
Doll Palace – Sara Lippmann – Read it for the podcast. I think we connected because she found the podcast I did with David Gates. This collection of fiction is Sara’s first book, and it’s got some intense and powerful short stories in it. The author told me her work’s been described as “Jewish gothic,” and I think that’s appropriate. There’s a degree of Flannery O’Connor to her stories, even though the setting (and the religion) are quite different. She writes good sentences, creates compelling characters, and puts the reader in some uncomfortable frames of mind. Listen to our podcast!
Last Night – James Salter – I was waiting down at the local library for my wife’s bus from NYC (the bus stop is in the library parking lot), and took this slim collection of stories off the shelf. I devoured one story during the wait, checked the book out and read the rest of it over the next 24 hours. I’m still embarrassed not to have discovered Salter until 2013. The title story, about an assisted suicide, has a Poe-like twist/change of tone, but it’s not all about storytelling trickery.
Where To?: A Hack Memoir – Dmitry Samarov – Read it for the podcast. Really fun collection of essays about the author’s career as a cab-driver. He published a previous book on the subject, but that one focused on the work-week, and this one covers Dmitry’s time from his first shift to his last, from Boston to Chicago. He’s also a painter, and the book includes a number of his drawings made while sitting in the driver’s seat of the cab. (Not while driving.) Listen to our podcast!
The Wife – Meg Wolitzer – A few guests and pals told me I need to read her work, and recommended this one. I was pretty disappointed in it; the big twist was pretty obvious to me about a quarter of the way in, and it made the rest of the read a slog until The Big Reveal. It’s about an author and his wife, on their way to pick up a Nobel-like award for his fiction. She narrates it and tells their story. It’s laden with Important Gender Issues to the detriment of not having believable or interesting characters. A pal asked me what book I read in 2014 disappointed me the most, and I didn’t hesitate to cite this one. That’s what I get for listening to my guests.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton – I was really not expecting the degree of antisemitism that cropped up early in this one. I loved The Age of Innocence when I read it a few years ago, and figured this would be along similar lines, but focused on the female character’s prospects. In broad terms, I was right, but the characterization of Rosedale and “his race” was pretty vile. I’m no PC warrior or anything, but stereotyping Jews (and this wasn’t focused on class-conscious merchant Jews, which would have been bad enough) is the mark of a second-rate mind (at best). I rallied on, and did enjoy much of the book. In fact, Rosedale’s bluntness turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of it, but I had this nettle pricking at me throughout the book.
Backing Into Forward: A Memoir – Jules Feiffer – Read it for the podcast. I wasn’t sure if Mr. Feiffer would follow through on our podcast-date, but I wanted to be prepared if he suddenly said, “Yeah, let’s do it tomorrow.” His memoir, published in 2010, covers a lot of Feiffer’s dizzying career as a cartoonist, novelist, illustrator and screenwriter. He knows how to tell a story, as he’s proved for decades, and weaves comedic tales about his mother-obsessed childhood, his scams and meltdowns in the U.S. Army, his cross-country pilgrimage for a girl had moved on, and his political evolution. He’s led an immensely rich life, and his writing conveys the importance of the outside world on his art, and vice versa. I went into the book expecting an old man’s reminiscences, and was pleasantly surprised by how charged the prose was, and how laugh-out-loud funny Feiffer is. Listen to our podcast!
I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists – Richard Gehr – Read it for the podcast. Wildly entertaining profiles of a dozen cartoonists at the New Yorker, as well as two of the cartoon editors. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a blast to read about these cartoonists’ histories, their influences, their work habits, and how they’ve seen the magazine and the rest of the market change. It’s based on interviews that Gehr did with the cartoonists and editors (and which I used as research for a few of my podcasts this year). Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Mr. Wicker – Maria Alexander – Read it for the podcast. This one’s an urban fantasy novel (I think; it may be part of another genre) that reminded me in part of Neil Gaiman’s early Sandman comics. It’s about a blocked writer who commits suicide, only to discover herself in a library of children’s hidden memories, governed by a sensual, scorched guy named Mr. Wicker. She gets restored to life, which sets in motion a plot by Mr. Wicker to get out of his eternal job assignment. It’s not a genre I do much reading in, so I was happy to find the book nicely written, carrying the reader along with a good deal of suspense, and not piling on unnecessary “rules” of the magic world that some writers use after they write themselves into a corner. Listen to our podcast!
The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany – Donald Westlake (ed. Levi Stahl) – Read it for the podcast. Past guest Dmitry Samarov suggested I get in touch with Levi Stahl, the editor of this book, and get him on the show, and I’m awfully glad he did. I’ve probably read a dozen novels by the late Donald Westlake (he wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms), but this was the first exposure I’ve had to his nonfiction. If you have any experience with his crime novels, you won’t be surprised to find that he was a wonderful writer even when he wasn’t crafting Parker or Dortmunder stories. This one’s a no-brainer for anyone who cares about the craft and business of writing, particularly in a genre like crime fiction (which Westlake refers to as “detective fiction”). It’s refreshing to read someone who’s so well-versed in the history of the genre, and so willing to talk about the economics of the business. His essays, reviews, appreciations, and letters are a joy to read. Podcast coming in 2015.
Give + Take – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. Enjoyable crime novel about a piano player who doubles as a thief, and the singer-thief he falls for. Having just finished that book of Westlake’s writing, it was little step down, but Westlake was a master, so that’s no big knock. Fitch carries the story along quite well, and the sections on the working life of the piano-player are awfully engaging. Podcast coming in 2015.
Senseless – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. A trade negotiator gets abducted, and gets brutally tortured by his Occupy-esque abductors. The kicker is, his whole experience is captured on live-streaming cameras, and the abductors are raising funds by having viewers vote on his fate. The torture, dragged out over weeks, is absolutely horrifying, and you really should not read this book if you have a weak stomach. I’m supposed to interview the author about a crime novel he wrote under a pseudonym, but I’m sure we’ll have some words about this one, and how he was able to write it. Podcast coming in 2015.
All Those Vanished Engines – Paul Park – Read it for the podcast. Boy, was this a weird one. It’s a metafictional novel in three parts. First, it’s about an alternate world in which the Confederacy won the Civil War with a Man in the High Castle narrative about a future world won by the Union, only both stories are writing each other. The next two segments get really weird, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. The writing’s gorgeous, but I felt that the metafiction was a little too opaque for me, so I’m going to reread Mr. Park’s four-volume White Tyger series to see if that helps me make more sense of this one. There’s a lot of good stuff in this, but metafiction is so difficult to pull off, and I fear I didn’t have enough of a background to get everything I should have out of this. Podcast coming in 2015.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade – Walter Kirn – Read it for the podcast, I hope. At least, the author has said he’s up for recording with me sometime. This may be the best nonfiction book I read in 2014. It’s about “Clark Rockefeller,” who turned out to be a German national named Christian Gerhartsreiter. I was fascinated by the Rockefeller case when it came out that he was a fraud; I couldn’t imagine how his wife went so many years without figuring out her husband’s false identity. Turns out that the author, Walter Kirn, knew Rockefeller for years, and also never suspected the fraud. As Rockefeller is exposed and then charged with murder, Kirn grows more engrossed in the case, and his (and our) propensity to be fooled, to want to be fooled, by the promise of high society. Kirn does a fantastic job of balancing his reporting on the case with his own anecdotes and analysis, playing up his own weaknesses and trying to explore how a novelist, who’s so immersed in understanding character, can fail to see through such an audacious fraud. There’s a degree to which “Rockefeller”‘s ability to take interlocutors’ words and spin new stories to draw them in put me in mind of Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius“; something about not only the construction of new worlds, but the way they come to infect and permeate what we think of as reality. I can’t recommend this book enough. Podcast coming in 2015.
Not pictured: A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park – The first in a four-book series about an alternate earth and a changeling princess who was hidden in our world (speaking of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”). As I mentioned in the previous Paul Park item, I started this series to get a better grasp of Paul’s work, so this is technically For The Podcast. It has some deliberate nods to John Crowley’s Aegypt cycle of books, although I hope not the final volume, which I couldn’t fathom. This one does a good job evoking the alternate world, alluding to its strange history and laws, while bringing us up to speed on a 20-year plot to hide the princess who can be the salvation of Roumania against those nasty Germans. There’s a scene in the afterlife that’s absolutely breathtaking. Podcast coming in 2015.
Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather – The last book I finished in 2014. One of my podcast-guests considers it The Great American Novel, so I was expecting a very different book than the one I got. It’s about a pair of Catholic missionaries in the American southwest after the Mexican-American War, and it’s almost a collection of anecdotes, rather than a novel. I literally had no idea what to expect from the book, but the title left me thinking it’d be a Whiskey Priest tale, with awful, dissolute people abounding. Instead, it’s a very Catholic novel. At least, I’m hoping that’s why I felt so disconnected from it. It’s a beautiful work, with the landscape serving as a lead character, but I did feel as though its outlook was somehow alien to me. At first, I attributed it to the 1850s SW setting, but one of my favorite novels (The Leopard) is set in 1860s Italy, so that wasn’t it. I think the purity of the two missionaries’ vision of the world (not that it was naive), demonstrates a type of grace that I just don’t feel in my life. Also, I was watching season 3 of Breaking Bad at the same time, and that’s a very different vision of New Mexico right there.
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And that’s it for 2014! At the moment, I’m in the second book of Paul Park’s White Tyger series, as I mentioned, along with Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’ve got plenty of podcast-related reading for 2015, but I’m also hoping to get to Climates (Andre Maurois), Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, more Stefan Zweig, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things (a re-read), and The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man (David Maurer).
Why don’t you go check out the past editions of this writeup?
It’s the ONE-HUNDREDTH EPISODE of The Virtual Memories Show! And they said it would never last! To celebrate hitting the century mark, I asked past guests, upcoming guests and friends of the show to interview me this time around!
This special episode includes questions and recorded segments with Maria Alexander, Ashton Applewhite, John Bertagnolli, Lori Carson, Sarah Deming, Paul Di Filippo, Michael Dirda, Robert Drake, Aaron K. Finkelstein, Mary Fleener, Drew Friedman, Josh Alan Friedman, Kipp Friedman, Richard Gehr, Ben Katchor, Sara Lippmann, Brett Martin, Zach Martin, Seth, Jesse Sheidlower, Ron Slate, Tom Spurgeon, Levi Stahl, Maya Stein, Rupert Thomson, Peter Trachtenberg, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, Frank Wilson, and Claudia Young.
Find out about my reading childhood, my dream list of pod-guests, my best practices for productivity (don’t have kids!), my favorite interview question, my top guest in the afterlife, the book I’d save if my house was on fire, what I’d do if I won a Macarthur Grant. and more! Give it a listen!
About our Guest
Gil Roth is the host of The Virtual Memories Show and the president of the Pharma & Biopharma Outsourcing Association.
Credits: This episode’s music is Stupid Now by Bob Mould. Several of the conversations were recorded on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro and the self-interview segments on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of me by Aaron K. Finkelstein.
Two years in a row? That makes The Guest List a Virtual Memories Show tradition! I reached out to 2014’s podcast guests and asked them about the favorite book(s) they read in the past year. More than 30 of them responded with a fantastic array of books. So, just in time for Hanukkah and Christmas, the Virtual Memories Show provides you with a huge list of of books that you’re going to want to read! Get ready to update your wish lists!
This episode features selections from nearly 3 dozen of our recent guests! So go give it a listen, and then visit the Guest List cheat sheet where you can find links to the books and the guests who responded.
(And check out the 2013 edition of The Guest List, too!)
About our Guests
The guests who contributed their favorite book from the past year — and that’s “favorite book I read in 2014,” not “favorite book that came out in 2014” — are Maria Alexander, Ashton Applewhite, David Baerwald, Nina Bunjevac, Roz Chast, Sarah Deming, Michael Dirda, Jules Feiffer, Mary Fleener, Nathan Fox, Josh Alan Friedman, Richard Gehr, Paul Gravett, Sam Gross, Rachel Hadas, Kaz, Daniel Levine, Sara Lippmann, Merrill Markoe, Brett Martin, Mimi Pond, George Prochnik, Emily Raboteau, Jonathan Rose, Ron Rosenbaum, Dmitry Samarov, Seth, Katie Skelly, Ron Slate, Maya Stein, Rupert Thomson, and Frank Wilson. Check out their episodes at our archives!
Credits: This episode’s music is The Book I Read by Talking Heads. Most of the episode was recorded at Virtual Memories Manor on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. A few segments were recorded by the guests and e-mailed in (which is to say: don’t blame me!). Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band.