Tag shakespeare

Podcast – The Peace Poet

#NJPoet on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories Show: Charles Bivona - The Peace Poet

“I think people are experiencing a lot of things in America that they just don’t have the words for. If I’m going to run around and wave this POET flag, then my job is to jump into the difficult situations and try to put them into words.”

Charles Bivona‘s business card reads, “Poet, Writer, Professor,” but he’s a lot more than that. Over the course of an hour, we talked about what it means to be known as NJPoet, his theory on the transmissibility of PTSD (based on the first-hand evidence of his father’s Vietnam War trauma being visited on his family), the value of building a massive Twitter network, the lessons of growing up poor, how Walt Whitman saved him on one of the worst days of his life, the virtues of a gift economy, and why getting bumped out of academia for blogging may have been the best thing for him.

“I think the core of my project is asking you, ‘What do you think your children think about what you’re doing right now?’”

We also discuss the role of poetry in America today and the poets who saved him in his youth, why he doesn’t publish poetry online, whether Twitter is more like The Matrix or The Watchmen, how his responses to Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy elevated his online presence, and why it’s important not to put yourself in an ideological cocoon.

“If you relax your ego, and say, ‘I’m here as a student and a teacher,’ you’ll get a lot out of social media.”

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

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Luz & NJ Poet

About our Guest

Charles Bivona (pictured above with his wife, Luz Costa), has the following on his About page:

Charles Bivona would tell you that he’s just trying to help his creative friends figure out ways to reach their goals, to help them in any way he can—writing letters, Twitter endorsements, all-out social media campaigns, word-of-mouth networking. Whatever helps. Otherwise, he’s reading, tweeting, listening to alternative news media, producing blog posts, and writing the first of hopefully several Kindle books and paperback poetry collections.

If you push him to be more philosophical, to talk more specifically about the social media strategy that built his audience, he frames his work as a Zen Buddhist approach to engagement based on mindfulness and honesty. With this in mind, he’s gathered an artistic social network that simmers with creativity, compassion, and humor. The writing itself, the poetic prose on his website, is also clearly informed by a Buddhist literary theory, rooted in practical teaching, mindfulness, and a vivid social reporting.

“It’s more of a life philosophy and a daily practice than a marketing plan,” Charles often says. “I’m using the web to make an attempt at Buddhist Right Livelihood, to try to make a living as a working poet in the United States.”

Credits: This episode’s music is Ladder of Success by Ted Hawkins. The conversation was recorded at Charles’ home 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. Photo of Charles Bivona and me by Luz Costa. Photo of Charles and Luz Costa by me.

Podcast: Reading Maketh a Full Man

DG Myers on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 4 episode 13 – Reading Maketh a Full Man,
or, “Where is the Lesbian on This List?”

“I would take an evil delight in asking my colleagues what they were reading, and watching the look of panic on their faces. Because everyone reads scholarship now, and very few primary materials. Our academic specialties are an inch wide and a mile deep.”

Literature professor and book critic DG Myers is dying of cancer, but that doesn’t mean he’s planning to go gentle into that good night. In a far-ranging conversation, we talk about why he believes university English departments will barely outlast him, how he made the move from Southern Baptist to Orthodox Judaism (getting recircumcised a few times along the way), what he’d like to be remembered for, why the idea of The Western Canon is a canard, which books and authors he’s trying to get to before he dies, who he regrets not reading before now, and the identity of the one author he’d like to hear from. Give it a listen!

“Every Shabbos I thank Hashem for my cancer, because it has focused me on what’s good and enabled me to ignore what’s not.”

We also talk about his plans to dispose of his library, the joys of studying under Stanley Elkin, the relation of books to moral life, the things that cease to matter in the face of a terminal diagnosis, the failure of English departments in the age of Theory, the thorny question of whether creative writing can be taught, and what writers and readers should do to save the humanities. Also, check out the list of books that came up in our conversation.

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

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About our Guest

DG Myers is the author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, a work of literary scholarship. He has been a critic and literary historian for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities, and was formerly the fiction critic for Commentary. He has written for Jewish Ideas Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals. He is working on a memoir, Life on Planet Cancer, and lives in Columbus, OH, with his wife Naomi and their four children: Dov, Saul, Isaac, and Miriam (“Mimi”). He writes at A Commonplace Blog.

Credits: This episode’s music is First We Take Manhattan by Jennifer Warnes. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Myers’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Prof. Myers by me.

Podcast: The Consolation of Poetry

Rachel Hadas and the consolation of poetry on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 4 episode 3 – The Consolation of Poetry

“Poetry chose me at an early age. I think it was connected to the fact that poetry is emotional, pretty, and short.”

Rachel Hadas, author of Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia and Poetry (Paul Dry Books), lost her husband to early onset dementia. We talk about how poetry — hers and others’ — gave her solace during this years-long process. We also talk about poetry is a way for the poet to both release and identify emotions, why it was easier to publish collections of poetry in the 1980s and 1990s, the benefits of poetry memorization, and why the Furies looked the other way when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.

“Writing helps us to live through something and then it helps us remember it, if we want to.”

BONUS: You get to hear me record an intro after 35 hours with no sleep, and find out about the huge, life-changing thing I did last week!

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

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About our Guest

Rachel Hadas studied classics at Harvard, poetry at Johns Hopkins, and comparative literature at Princeton. Between college and graduate school she spent four years in Greece, an experience that surfaces variously in much of her work. Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department of the Newark (NJ) campus of Rutgers University, and has also taught courses in literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton, as well as serving on the poetry faculty of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the West Chester Poetry Conference. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant in poetry, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Rachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, prose, and translations. Most recently, she her memoir about her husband’s illness, Strange Relation, was published by Paul Dry Books (2011) and a new book of her poems, The Golden Road, was published by Northwestern University Press (2012).

Credits: This episode’s music is Strange Conversation by Ted Hawkins. The conversation was recorded at the home of Ms. Hadas on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in a hotel room in London on the same gear. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Rachel Hadas by me.

Podcast: Readercon 2013 – Fairies and Zombies

John Crowley on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 15 -
Readercon – Fairies and Zombies

It’s time for a two-part mega-podcast! I visited the 24th annual Readercon, conference on literary fantasy & science fiction (or “imaginative literature,” as it’s known) in Burlington, MA in July, and came back with a ton of interviews! Readercon is a fantastic (ha-ha) event, with great programming, a good booksellers’ hall, and lots of fun conversation; you should make a point of attending it if your tastes run toward the authors who come up in this and the following episode.

I (not-so-wisely) conducted five interviews in one day so, rather than make a 3-hour episode, I decided to split them up between boys and girls. This time around you get interviews with authors John Crowley and Scott Edelman!

“The big books I’ve written have never had a genre at all. They were certain kinds of fictional possibilities that interested and intrigued me and that I wanted to try to achieve. I wouldn’t say there’s an awful lot in Little, Big that’s realistic, but there’s plenty that was based on my daily experiences of life in New York City.”

–John Crowley

John Crowley is the author of Little, Big (or, The Fairies’ Parliament), which I consider one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. I’d known about it for a long time, but only read it a few years ago, after learning that my wife has been re-reading it every year or two since it came out in paperback in 1983 or thereabouts. You should go read it now or wait for the deluxe edition from Incunabula Press! (He’s also written other amazing books, like the Aegypt cycle, Engine Summer, and more.)

I talked with Mr. Crowley about readers’ devotion Little, Big, the problems he faced in writing it and how surmounting them opened the doors to his subsequent books, how the fantasy genre developed during the course of his career, what his favorite imaginary books are, why I felt unprepared for our conversation despite having read six of his novels, and what it was like to write copy for Maidenform bras when he was starting out.

“One of the most amazing things about writing to me is that, even though you’ve read, and heard, and seen thousands of stories, when you sit down to write one, you have no idea how to begin!”

–John Crowley

Even if you haven’t read Little, Big, you’ll find this a fascinating conversation about the writing process, literary reputation, and what it means to tell a story!

Scott Edelman on The Virtual Memories Show

“You have to write the things you love. They have to be extremely important to you, to give you that tingle when you read them. Because if you’re not moved by it, I don’t see how anyone else is going to be moved by it. . . .”

–Scott Edelman

Then I talk with Scott Edelman, a longtime writer, editor and Con-goer, about his zombie-fiction, being an editor at Marvel Comics in the 1970s, his storytelling tips and his pros and cons of workshops, whether he pays attention to literary markets, what Readercon means to him, and what it was like to move from one side of the convention table to the other.

“Why zombies? Because zombies are the closest we’ll ever see to what we’ll really become. Because there’ll be that day when we’re all walking husks without memory.”

–Scott Edelman

Enjoy the conversations! Then listen to part 2 of our Readercon conversations with Theodora Goss, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, and Nancy Hightower. Meanwhile, check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guests

John Crowley lives in the hills above the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters. He is the author of Little, Big, the four-volume Aegypt cycle, The Translator, Novelties & Souvenirs, Lord Byron’s Novel, and Four Freedoms. You can find out more about the special anniversary edition of Little, Big here.

Scott Edelman has published more than 75 short stories in magazines such as Postscripts, The Twilight Zone, Absolute Magnitude, Science Fiction Review and Fantasy Book, and in anthologies such as The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Crossroads, MetaHorror, Once Upon a Galaxy, Moon Shots, Mars Probes, Forbidden Planets. His poetry has appeared in Asimov’s, Amazing, Dreams and Nightmares, and others. What Will Come After, a collection of his zombie fiction, and What We Still Talk About, a collection of his science fiction stories, were both published in 2010. He has been a Stoker Award finalist five times, in the categories of both Short Story and Long Fiction. He is the editor of Blastr at the Syfy Channel. You can find more about him at his site.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fairy Tales by Style Council. Both conversations were recorded in a room at the Burlington Marriott on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti into my Mac Mini, at my Ikeahack standing desk. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photos by me.

Podcast: Highest Learning

Eva Brann on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 12 – Highest Learning

Your humble(ish) host just made his annual Piraeus pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, this time to participate in a four-day seminar about Moby Dick . . . and score a great interview! I managed to get legendary tutor Eva Brann (above) to take a break from her crazy schedule and sit down for a 45-minute conversation about the college’s Great Books program and how she’s seen it change (and stay the same) in her FIFTY-SEVEN YEARS at the school. We also talk about the value of a liberal arts education, the one novel she’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, the need professors have to profess (and why St. John’s has tutors instead of professors), her swoon for Odysseus, her desert island book, her one criterion for a great novel, where she sees the school going in the next fifty-seven years, the Dostoevsky-or-Tolstoy debate, and more, including a boatload of questions I solicited from alumni! It’s a fascinating conversation with one of the most learned people in the world.

Ian Kelley (and Rufus T. Firefly) on The Virtual Memories Show

And then Ian Kelley, a St. John’s student from 1993, talks about his experience at the college, what brought him there, what he learned about himself and the Great Books, and how his Annapolis experience influenced his decision to join the U.S. Navy. Ian’s a longtime pal and is the first guest to appear in the non-famous Virtual Memories Library (pictured, with dog, who occasionally sighs and grunts during the podcast).

Enjoy the conversations! Then check out the archives for more great talk!

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About our Guests

Eva Brann has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD since 1957 and served as dean there from 1990 to 1997. Ms. Brann is the author of Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings, Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, and The Logos of Heraclitus, all of which are available from Paul Dry Books.

Ian Kelley is a proud 1997 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and an avid motorcyclist, traveler and reader. He trusts Gil Roth to keep him smart and honest. Ian and his wife, Jessica, live in Fallon, NV.

We previously interviewed St. John’s College tutors David Townsend and Tom May, so you should check those out! For more information about St. John’s College and the Great Books program, visit its site.

Credits: This episode’s music is Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. The conversation was recorded at the home of Eva Brann on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ian Kelley was recorded at my home on a pair AT2020 mics feeding into the Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 into the Zoom H4n. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of Eva Brann by me, photo of Ian Kelley and me by Amy Roth

Podcast: The Magnificent Seven

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 2 – The Magnificent Seven

Reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing: these are the activities organizing the life of this episode’s guest, Willard Spiegelman, author of Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness! We talk about his wonderful book (go read it!), his addiction to ballroom dancing, how to find joy in the day-to-day world, why he hates book clubs, what Dallas, TX is like for a secular Philadelphia Jew, how he turned me on to one of my favorite novels, who his Desert Island Poets are, how he writes about the visual arts, why the world’s great novels are lost on the young, and what it was like to attend his 50th high school reunion. (Also, Harold Bloom crops up yet again; I really gotta try to get him on the show sometime. Boy, talk about the anxiety of influence . . .)

One of the best things about doing this podcast is that I get to meet some wonderful people. In this case, meeting with Willard over two afternoons (story to come) was like making a new old friend.

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

Willard Spiegelman on The Virtual Memories Show

About our Guest

Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He also serves as editor-in-chief of Southwest Review, the third oldest continuously published literary quarterly in America. In 2005, Willard won the PEN/Nora Magid award for literary editing. In addition to Seven Pleasures, he’s also written or edited How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Wordsworth’s Heroes, Imaginative Transcripts: Selected Literary Essays, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, and Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. He writes about the arts for the Wall Street Journal. Oh, and he’s quite dapper.

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Credits: This episode’s music is This Charming Man by The Smiths. The conversation was recorded at Willard Spiegelman’s home in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.

Podcast: Disarm

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 1 – Disarm

Our first guest of 2013 is Ron Rosenbaum, one of my favorite living writers! This episode of The Virtual Memories Show is The Bomb!

I’ve been a fan of Ron’s writing (let’s call it “literary journalism”) since reading Long Island, Babylon (originally titled The Devil in Long Island) in The New York Times Magazine nearly 20 years ago, so having him on the show is a big honor for me.

Our conversation focuses on his most recent book, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, and what he learned in the course of researching the present danger of nuclear conflict. (It’s a pretty harrowing — and very important — topic, folks.) From there, we discuss Ron’s body of work, his literary influences, Nixon’s final lie, what he thinks of Harold Bloom, his opinions about contemporary literary journalism, and more.

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

Ron Rosenbaum on The Virtual Memories Show

About our Guest

Born in Manhattan, Ron Rosenbaum grew up on Long Island, got a degree in English literature from Yale, and dropped out of Yale Graduate School to write. Ron’s other books include Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, and The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms, a collection of his essays and journalism from The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, The New Yorker, The New York Observer, and other publications. I highly recommend all of them; in fact, I have extra copies of The Secret Parts of Fortune at home and in my office, just in case I feel like reading one of what Errol Morris calls “metaphysical detective stories.” You can find Ron’s current work at Slate, where he’s a columnist, and Smithsonian Magazine, where he’s a National Correspondent. He’s currently at work on two new books.

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Credits: This episode’s music is One of Our Submarines (extended mix) by Thomas Dolby. The conversation was recorded at the Inn on 23rd in New York City, on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo courtesy of the receptionist at the Inn on 23rd, whose name I didn’t catch.

Another Year, In the Books: 2012

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“One of the pleasures of middle age — there aren’t many — lies in a growing appreciation for art that is urbane and refined. To be a man of the world is, in my mind, to be a courtly, music-loving intellectual living in Vienna or Prague during the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the last glimmering of a now vanished era . . .”

–Michael Dirda

It was another wonderful reading year for me, even if I sometimes feel like I’m an ape who’s trying to mimic the behavior of a cultured gentlereader. I know this isn’t the mode for everyone (esp. those of you who have social lives), but I’m awfully happy I get to live this way. Last year, I chronicled all the books I finished, but used a separate post to discuss 2011′s big reading project, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. I didn’t have a major project this year, so you’re going to get some commentary on everydarnbook on The List. (Speaking of . . .)

As with last year, this writeup doesn’t include comics that I finished. I should note that, while I’ve had Chris Ware’s Building Stories on my desk since late September, I’ve been too . . . intimidated? something else? . . . to start it. Maybe that’ll be the next big read.

Meanwhile, there are more than 50 to discuss, so let’s get started!

The Sun Also Rises: I had the thought last January of reading a lot of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. I may’ve been a little influenced by that meh Woody Allen flick, Midnight in Paris. Clearly, not as effective as the way Another Woman turned me on to Rilke, but hey. This time around, I found Hemingway’s prose flatter and less effective than I recalled. Nowadays, we’d chalk it up to writing for a screenplay rather than the printed word, but I guess that wasn’t a consideration back then.

The Learners: A day after that, I was wiped out with the flu. I stayed home from work and started reading The Learners, the sequel to book designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys. The book follows our lead character, Happy, out of art school and into his first design job in 1961. Bizarrely enough, considering how out-of-it I must have been, I managed to read this book in a few hours. I enjoyed it, mainly for the depiction of Happy’s worklife as a designer in that era (not exactly Mad Men). I wasn’t as interested in the plot, centering on Stanley Milgram‘s authority experiments, but I’m hoping to see a third book from Kidd as Happy finds his way in the world (and figures out his sexuality, the suppression of which is a key component of this and The Cheese Monkeys).

Money: A Suicide Note: A week later, I read Martin Amis’ Money, which I’d heard referred to as his greatest novel. I think London Fields trumps it, but they’re both awfully good. They’re also very difficult for me to recommend to people; Amis’ language is like lightning (at his peak, I think his prose is up there with Nabokov’s), but his characters are almost uniformly unlikeable and normal people seem to care about that. In my podcast conversation with Michael Dirda, we talked about the pleasure principle in reading and criticism. He praised Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, but said it so unremitting and humorless that no one could finish it, and contrasted that with the evil wit of William Gass’ The Tunnel. He made a comment about writing a book in which none of the characters were likable, and I said, “We should ask Martin Amis for tips on that.” That said, it’s an amazing novel, capturing the money-hungry ’80s in New York and London. And it was fun to read the brothel scene that Amis researched with Christopher Hitchens (whose Hitch-22: A Memoir was the close-out to last year’s post). Also, it seems like Alan Moore was cribbing from this when he wrote A Small Killing, a comic illustrated by Oscar Zarate.

Brideshead Revisited: Reading at tangents, I went from Martin Amis to Evelyn Waugh, an influence on his dad Kingsley. I read Waugh’s Scoop in late 2011 (following Hitchens’ recommendation) before moving on to his best-known novel, Brideshead Revisited. I had absolutely no idea what this book was about. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a very staid, mannered book. I really wasn’t expecting the ebullience of Sebastian Flyte and, once introduced to him, I wasn’t expecting the Catholic-Anglican conflict between the narrator and Sebastian’s sister, Julia. I was happy to have so much of Anthony Powell under my belt before reading this, even though Powell’s prose and story were far less unified than Waugh’s.

Stories of Anton Chekhov: My first great discovery of 2012 was Chekhov’s short fiction (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation). I’d apparently read Three Sisters back in my freshman year of college, probably for an acting class, but never got to Chekhov otherwise. I have so many lacunae in my reading, it’s embarrassing. I devoured this collection and will likely get around to his short novels and his plays in 2013. I was floored by the intensity and vividness of his short sketches, like The Huntsman and the seriously creepy Sleepy, while the longest piece in the book, A Boring Story, is an utter masterpiece. I’m in awe of Chekhov.

Tropic of Cancer: Looking back over my list, I honestly don’t remember reading this book for the bajillionth time. I’m guessing I thought it would be a good palate-cleanser, some familiarly gorgeous prose for me to fall back into after being swept up in Chekhov for 3 weeks. It’s also possible I just read too darned quickly sometime. I try not to read for volume, but it happens to the best of us sometimes.

Travesties: I read Tom Stoppard’s play in anticipation of seeing it performed in Princeton. We never got down there, because of work travel or some other excuse, but I was glad to read it. It’s a toughie to characterize, because of the Leninist stuff, the Wildean mode, the slapstick, the dead-end of Dadaism, and more, but I was wowed by the ambition of it, and I’m a sucker for “all these famous figures happened to live in the same place at the same time, so who’s to say they never overlapped?”

Metropole: I read this one on a recommendation in Bookslut. It’s a forgotten novel about a linguistics professor from Hungary on his way to a conference who falls asleep, misses a connection, gets on a wrong airplane, and winds up in a strange city where he can’t understand the language. I had high hopes for this novel, but it draws out the drudgery of the professor’s life in a way that ground my interest into a nub. Going into it, my assumption was that the professor’s experience mirrors that of everyone who travels to Hungary from the west, since their language has virtually no connection to the Indo-European language groups. I spent a full week in Hungary a few years ago and managed to pick up only 5 or 6 words in that time. Anyway, I was hoping for more of the Kafkaesque out of this novel, I suppose, but I can understand how the time in which it was written (1970, during the endless days of the Cold War) dictated the sense of hopelessness that pervades it.

Inherent Vice: A Novel: I bailed on Thomas Pynchon’s last giganto-novel, Against the Day, a year or two ago. I was 50-60 pages into it and concluded that I wasn’t enjoying it and would never get around to finishing it. On a whim, I picked up this shorter novel last spring at a nearbyish new/used bookstore, Well Read. I figured this would be more Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity’s Rainbow. Little did I know it would be most similar to The Big Lebowski. I mean that in a good way. It’s a stoner detective novel set in LA in the ’60s, and the plot doesn’t quite add up, but the atmosphere is what it’s all about. While I was reading it, it struck me that Pynchon generally alternates his novels between “big” and “SoCal”: V. (big), Crying of Lot 49 (SoCal), Gravity’s Rainbow (big), Vineland (SoCal), Mason & Dixon (big), Against the Day (big), Inherent Vice (SoCal). The fact that those last two are out of sequence is clearly the sign that They’re up to something . . .

Coriolanus: Two reasons to take up this one: to prepare to catch the Ralph Fiennes movie version (which I haven’t seen yet), and because I was going to take a trip to Phoenix for a trade show that month and planned to see a Diamondbacks game. See, I try to keep a decent gap between the number of Shakespeare plays I’ve read and the number of MLB ballparks I’ve visited. You know how weird I am, so don’t act like this surprises you. Anyway, the play was minor on the Shakespeare scale, but does help illustrate why military men don’t tend to make good statesmen.

Family Happiness“: I read Tolstoy’s novella in anticipation of a St. John’s College alumni seminar in NYC. Sadly, I could only attend the pre-seminar coffee hour and not the conversation itself, due to a sick dog at home, but I did get to talk with the tutor who was running the show, and she followed up afterward to tell me how it went. It’s Tolstoy and it’s not religious, so you know it’s good. It’s about the ways in which one’s notions of love and romance change the longer one’s in a relationship. In this case, it’s a sad, 19th century version with a younger woman discovering the loss of romance as her marriage progresses. It’s a recurring theme, esp. with great European writers of that era, but it’s so artfully told, even in its inevitabilities, that Tolstoy makes it fresh.

The Living End: This was probably on an off-the-cuff recommendation from Harold Bloom, and was probably the book I least enjoyed in 2012. I stuck with it, violating my maxim, “life is too short for shitty novels,” because it was only 130 pages of large type, but I could’ve given this one a pass. It starts off well, depicting the comic life of a Jewish liquor store owner before he’s murdered in a hold-up. From there, it transforms into a story of how grotesquely unfair the afterlife is, how vengeful God (the scriptural God) is, and why the end of the world can’t come soon enough. It was pretty relentless in its sections in hell, which is the point, I get it, but I just found it an unworthy book, especially after starting off so well. I’ll try one of Stanley Elkin’s other books sometime to see which part was the aberration.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: William Styron’s memoir about depression and suicidal ideation was probably not what I should’ve been reading in a generic hotel room in Arizona during a business trip. Turns out he was having a bad reaction to Halcion. I understand how terrible that is, but when I was having an ugly CNS reaction to an antibiotic I’d been prescribed, it only took 3-4 days for me to realize that that’s what was happening and that my wife and coworkers were NOT actually trying to poison me. Either I’m more self-aware than Styron, or I spent a lot more time than he did reading about adverse events from prescription drugs.

Uncle Vanya: I thought the movie Cold Souls was terrible, but it led me to read Uncle Vanya, so I guess that’s not too bad. More Chekhov, again revolving around the country life and the sense of wasting one’s life in that setting. The only good scene in that Giamatti movie was when he rehearses a scene from the play after having his soul extracted, and attacks it with a joie de vivre totally inappropriate to the tragic setting. Seriously, avoid that movie, but read this play.

Solaris: This was the first Stanislaw Lem book I’ve read. I’d seen the Steven Soderbergh film version, and it was interesting to see how some of the book’s “rules” for the mysterious apparitions were removed or softened for the sake of the drama. Ultimately, I found it a bit too frustrating, in terms of the Macguffin, but it’s a beautiful piece of writing about the ineffability of experience. Just as we can’t understand what Solaris is “thinking,” we also fail to understand those closest to us.

Meditations: I bought Marcus Aurelius’ book after seeing The Silence of the Lambs back in 1992 or thereabouts, and only got around to reading it 20 years later. There were moments when I thought, “Well, it’s kinda easy to adopt Stoicism when you’re the emperor of Rome and not one of its subjects or slaves,” but I figured that was sour grapes. It’s written as self-advice (not self-help), and not all of us are going to address the Roman senate or lead an army, but his lessons, and his general vibe about leading a good life, are pretty useful. I need to reconsider him in relation to all that Montaigne I was reading a few years ago.

Austerlitz: The only W.G. Sebald I read before this year were a few essays in On the Natural History of Destruction. I don’t recall much of that reading, beyond the issue of trying to reconcile the desire for revenge against Germany after the war with leaving children to suffer. Austerlitz is the first of two Sebald novels I read in 2012. I was unprepared for his curious method of writing, that combination of compelling first-person travelogue and not-quite-documentary images, his peculiar mingling of the real and unreal. The story within the novel, which Jacques Austerlitz relates to the narrator, is haunting, in the same way that both characters haunt the Continent in the decades following the war. I bought the rest of Sebald’s novels after this, but his premature death (car accident in 2001) may be the greatest literary loss of our time.

Selected Stories of Flannery O’Connor / Wise Blood (re-read): That brings me to the life-changing moment I had at the beginning of summer. I read a number of O’Connor’s short stories for the 4-day Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College. I wrote about the Piraeus in last year’s write-up, in my entry on Wise Blood (which I re-read before the seminar). O’Connor’s fiction was a grotesque revelation, and would’ve been reward enough, now that I can see her threads weaving through modern American fiction and storytelling, but the long weekend in Annapolis re-energized me, brought a new focus to my reading, introduced me to new friends, and reminded me of the value of The Conversation. (The stories we read for the seminar were Good Country People, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Artificial N*****, Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Lame Shall Enter First, and Parker’s Back. I oughtta read The Violent Bear It Away in 2013.) Check out the podcasts I recorded during that trip with David Townsend and Tom May!

Rabbit, Run: My first Updike. As I wrote on Facebook, “My big hangup was the sheer poetic beauty of the prose and how it didn’t really fit with any of the characters’ perspectives. That is, Rabbit wouldn’t have seen the world as beautifully as the narrative describes it, but the narrative often lapses into the limited perspectives of its characters. It’ll drop into the more immediate tones of Rabbit’s wife, Ruth, or Rabbit himself, and all the gorgeous prose drops away. It felt like Updike was showing off with those more poetic passages, or he didn’t yet know how to integrate that with his characters’ limited visions.” I later expanded on that in a note to a pal of mine, “There are some beautiful sentences in there, but the narrative voice makes little to no sense. Sometimes it’s immediately in the characters’ heads, but it begins making poetic descriptions of phenomena that the characters themselves couldn’t possibly formulate. So it felt like cheating/showing off: ‘I’m going to get inside these characters’ heads, but then I’m going to make intensely beautiful observations because I’ve got a bunch of them in my notebook and want to get them out.’ Presumably, he got better as a writer, but I was shocked by the clumsiness of that first book.” So now you know where I stand. I have the whole Rabbit Angstrom 4-book omnibus, but will I ever get around to those when there are so many other books with more promise?

Housekeeping: I may be the only person who read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead without having read her first novel. Enough people have praised it over the years (including my first podcast guest, Ann Rivera) that I decided to give it a read. They’re right. It’s fantastic. Robinson’s beautiful prose evokes the fragility of home life, the disintegration of family. It also has its roots in Flannery O’Connor, although I’m sure a smarter writer than I could explain how Robinson’s Calvinism leads to a different style than O’Connor’s (southern) Catholicism.

O, How the Wheel Becomes it!: This was another one-day read (“one-evening,” to be precise). It was Anthony Powell’s first novel after he finished A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s slight, but it parodies/slags the literary fiction and academia scenes in the UK. And I was happy to see the guy who created X. Trapnel return to goofing on the publishing world.

Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games: Americans and Their Games: I don’t read a lot of nonfiction books; I prefer long-form articles instead. I guess you could count Darkness Visible and Meditations as nonfiction, but this is the first one on the list to deal with a non-memoir subject. One of my fellow Piraeus members suggested I read this book by the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. It’s about the nature of sport, what it says about America and Americans, and, um, numerology. That part only comes up in the final section, but Giamatti sorta ascribes a kabbalistic significance to some of the numbers in baseball. As a whole, the book was a bit dry, in an Aristotelian way, but I enjoyed his reminiscences about playing baseball with his family, as well as the seriousness with which he could approach play.

The Aeneid (tr. Fagles): And this is where I went into overdrive. After that Piraeus weekend at St. John’s, I asked one of my tutors for a mini-curriculum of the Romans. I’d given them short shrift, deriding them as pastiches of the Greeks. Within a few minutes of my return to Annapolis, I realized what an unfair characterization this was. So I started educating myself in Roman literature and history, beginning with Virgil. Y’know what? The Aeneid IS a pastiche of Homer’s two epic poems, but Virgil’s a great enough artist to create something new out of that. The comparison that came to me after finishing the poem was Homer::Virgil as Jordan::Kobe. I don’t think Kobe could have been so successful without having MJ’s history behind him, but he managed to reach some pretty lofty heights once he incorporated that example.

Yeah, the Aeneid is propaganda for the Roman Empire, but Dido’s suicide left me breathless (the retroactive justification for the war with Carthage), Camilla’s Final Hour had one of the funniest images I’ve ever come across (her father, when she was an infant, sent her to safety by tying her to his spear and throwing her across the Amasenus river so he could pick her up after escaping the Volscians), and everybody needs a creation epic, right?

The Stranger (re): I re-read this after finishing the Sartre chapter in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia (coming up soon). I gave Camus’ fiction pretty short shrift over the years, too, ever since making a dumb comment about him back in college. Reading him now, and trying to get an understanding of Algeria, I find him much more compelling. I’m always glad to find out how dumb I’ve been.

I Totally Meant to Do That: This is the first book I read specifically for my podcast, as I was interviewing the author, Jane Borden. It’s an enjoyable memoir about a North Carolina debutante, her transformation into a Brooklyn hipster, and how she came to understand home. Check out the podcast!

The Early History of Rome (Books I-V) / Rome and Italy (Books VI-X): After Virgil, I took up the first 10 books of Livy’s history of Rome. Seriously, I knew very little about this, so it was both informative and ridiculously entertaining. Livy covers Rome’s founding through 293 b.c. in these books (2 volumes from Penguin). It’s a cliche to say that knowledge of history informs the present, but the transition from kingdom to republic, driven by the growth in inequality between the high-born and the “peasants,” is awfully pertinent. As with all good histories, it’s replete with examples of our unchanging nature, demonstrated by our politics and (including the original story of the aforementioned Coriolanus). I’d put this in my must-read list (and I plan to read the subsequent surviving books in 2013).

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts: It took me four years to work my way through this collection of biographical sketches/essays by Clive James. Finishing this book made me happier/prouder than any other book on the list. It’s about 800 pages long, and here’s the structure: biographical sketch, quotation from the subject, essay by James that may or may not be about the subject. The book focuses on the culture that was destroyed by the great wars and dictatorships of the 20th century, with Vienna as its locus point. James strives to remind us of all that we once had, and was lost. But to describe it like that is to miss the point. This book is an encyclopedia of one of the last cultured men, and its biographical subjects range from Viennese Jews like Stefan Zweig to Coco Chanel to Miles Davis. I read the book sequentially — which means, alphabetically — but it’s really intended to be dipped into anywhere that catches your fancy. My problem is that I’m sure I would have glossed over some interesting sketches/essays had I read it that way. And in fact, the piece that I think provides a key to the whole book is the essay about Paul Muratov, a Russian art historian who is (almost) utterly forgotten. If there’s any one book I’d recommend above all others in this post, it’s Cultural Amnesia. Treat yourself.

The Sense of an Ending: This short Julian Barnes novel was a Kindle loan from my public library. It relies on some really obtuse behavior by a couple of characters in order to keep its mystery going and deliver on its main themes, that memory is unreliable and people can be real pricks in college.

Sea, Swallow Me And Other Stories: This is a short story collection by a guy I knew in college, Craig Gidney. I enjoyed some of them far more than I wanted to, because I am of course jealous of any of my contemporaries who have been able to finish writing anything, much less achieved publication. The book’s firmly in the fantasy genre, and many of the stories come from a gay black male perspective. Having published Samuel R. Delany’s books once upon a time, I didn’t have any squeamishness about that, but I thought you’d like to know. Her Spirit Hovering, about a man who can’t get over his mother, is a blast. (But I really didn’t like the final story, Catch Him By the Toe, which felt like a Twilight Zone / comic book origin story.)

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland: I read Michael Dirda’s 2003 memoir in preparation for our podcast interview. Having (his version of) the details of his early life under my belt helped to keep me from falling into any “I’m not worthy!” moments during our talk. Not that Mr. Dirda’s intimidating in person, by any means, but I’ve enjoyed his book reviews and columns for decades and feared I would ask him something like, “Why are you so awesome?” a la Chris Farley with Paul McCartney in that SNL skit. The book was pretty enchanting, even though I hoped for a bit more of the “how I became so awesome” material about his time at the Washington Post, rather than “this was the girl I liked in college,” but I was happy to learn more about someone whose work I’ve dug for so long. Check out the podcast!

The Metamorphoses of Ovid (tr. Mandelbaum): Then it was back to the Romans! As I wrote earlier, there are awful, gaping holes in my reading. It’s one of the main reasons why I read so little contemporary fiction; there are too many great works of the past for me to catch up on. As I look over the list, it seems that, of the 51 books I finished in 2012, only 14 of them (27%) were published from 2000 on, and only 7 came out since 2009. I’m kicking myself for not getting around to Ovid until now. It’s like a kaleidoscope viewing of the Greek and Roman myths, with transformation as the common thread running through them. Does it, like the Aeneid, become propaganda when Julius Caesar gets woven into the end of the poem? Sure, but it’s forgivable, when so many of the other myths are of tribal self-identification. Anyway, it’s a glorious work, and I wish I had read it in my teens, rather than the pulp science fiction and comics I was raised on.

The Good Soldier: Michael Dirda praised the living heck out of this Ford Madox Ford novel from 1915, so I gave it a read soon after our conversation. The narrator, an who was seemingly unaware of the affair going on between his wife and a British captain, tells the story of passion and suicide in a very disjointed manner. It’s not right to say he’s an unreliable narrator, but his elliptical way of getting to the heart of the story and his willful blindness to what’s going on around him never seem like cheap plot devices; rather, they’re both essential his character and indicative of a certain sense of propriety in that era. The narrator’s casualness and disjointedness are actually intensely worked out by Ford, so that mere asides turn into harbingers of what the narrator calls “the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s a wonderful novel, which I’ll likely return to in a year or two to catch the significance in all the seemingly insignificant details.

King Lear (re-read): It was a re-read for seminar at St. John’s homecoming weekend. And if you haven’t read King Lear yet, then why are you wasting time reading my bazillion-word blog-post? Most of the seminar group was from the same class, so I was an outsider, but we had a good conversation about the nature(s) of madness, the impossibility of retirement, and where there’s any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts.

Capital: I’m a fan of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure, and the financial writing he’s been doing since the crash, so I gave his mega-novel from 2011 a shot during a business trip to Madrid. It tells the story of a number of people living on a street in London where property values have been skyrocketing. There are multi-generational long-timers, executives from the City, Pakistani shopkeepers, a rising star soccer player, and the various people with whom their lives intersect, including a Banksy-like artist, an illegal immigrant working as a meter maid, a Polish handyman, and more. It’s ambitious in its attempt at showing how insane money has gotten in our financial centers, and how it warps the lives of the rich and poor. The need to drive the plot over 600 or so pages means that the prose isn’t as gorgeous as in Debt to Pleasure, and it may not reach Bonfire of the Vanities-level zeitgeist-ery, but it’s still a good read.

Chess Story: And that brings me to Stefan Zweig. I first read about Zweig at the end (naturally) of Cultural Amnesia. Clive James largely dismissed Zweig’s fiction and instead focused on his biographical essays and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. As with many artists in James’ book, I made a note to get to him “later on.” Then I read an appreciation of Zweig in the New Yorker by Leo Carey that focused on his fiction (both writers also focus on Zweig’s 1942 suicide in Petropolis, Brazil) and decided to give his last novella a shot before the flight home from Madrid.

I sat in the airport terminal completely riveted by this slim book (80 pages). As with The Leopard in 2011, I began re-reading the book almost immediately, in awe of the storytelling, the ease of language and symbols, the utter tension of the work. I must have given out half a dozen copies of this to friends to read. The story is about a veritable idiot savant of a chess master who travels on a steamer from New York to Argentina. Our narrator wants to see him play, and contrives to get him into a match with a high-stakes amateur on the ship. A mysterious passenger offers some help during a match, and that’s when things really take off.

It’s so mind-blowingly good and compact, that I found myself buying up a number of Zweig’s other works (he only wrote one novel, otherwise sticking to the novella for his fiction) to see how they measured up. (Keep reading; you’ll find out.) But if you’re looking for a great (and quick) read, go buy Chess Story right away. Skip the introduction, because it gives away some things that it’s better to uncover in the novella itself.

I have a million more things to say about Zweig, but this isn’t the place for them, because I’ll never finish otherwise.

Bartleby & Co.: The New Yorker also tipped me off to this book by Enrique Vila-Matas. It’s ostensibly a novel about “Writers of the No,” authors who quit writing or never finished their work. I thought that would be right up my alley, never having started, but the book was disappointing. The concept was fine, but there’s not enough novel-ing going on in it. The scenes from the narrator’s life, the hints at the bigger world around him, just drop away and the book we’re left with isn’t substantial enough to make up for not knowing “what happened.”

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness: I read this book by Willard Spiegelman in preparation for a pending podcast interview. (There’s a story about that, of course.) On the face of it — a book with the chapters, Reading, Walking, Looking, Dancing, Listening, Swimming, and Writing — I thought I was getting a literary self-help book. It turns out to be a Montaigne-esque series of essays: more meditation than memoir, and certainly not self-help. I enjoyed it a great deal, perhaps because I could relate to so many of Mr. Spiegelman’s experiences, even if I’m too chicken to learn to dance.

The Emigrants : I read this W.G. Sebald book over the course of the first day of the Hurricane Sandy blackout. It’s written in the same mode as Austerlitz; a first-person narrative (with photos) about the lives of four people driven away from Germany. It’s like a precursor to Austerlitz, but I found it a little less haunting, if only because one of the titular emigrants traveled to America and some of the narrator’s travels overlapped with highways I’ve traveled.

Fifth Business / The Manticore / World of Wonders: The blackout was 8 days long, and I managed to read much of Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy in that time. It was pretty great to have no power, no way of getting in touch with the office, and nothing to do but read and sit by the fire. I read Fifth Business more than 20 years ago, but remembered almost none of it. It’s hard to describe the story without sounding prosaic. In a sense, it’s a melodrama about the magic behind our lives. See? The first book is the best of the series, but the whole trilogy is a joy, even the weird Jungian analysis of The Manticore. It’s about life in a provincial Canadian town, and saints, and magicians, and stage-craft, and childhood guilt, and a million other things. Based on my experience with it, I recommend this as a great wintertime read by a fire.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: I can only hope that Poe’s one novel was intended as a parody of sea-faring fantastic tales, because I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: Awesomely entertaining. Max Brooks’ novel about a zombie apocalypse and the living’s response to it is told as an oral history, 10 years after major hostilities have ceased. The history is told by survivors from around the world, and the International Relations aspect of it is part of why it’s so great. The story telescopes from the personal to the international/global. Some of the chapters are heartbreaking, others are terrifically creepy, and it all adds up to a really good book. Sadly, it’ll be a movie next year, and that’ll ruin everything; it’s a slow zombie menace, not a fast zombie one as the movie trailer seems to show, and that runs counter to what makes the book so darned creepy. If we’re still dividing literature into genres, then this is my zombie/thriller/horror recommendation of the year.

Journey Into the Past (New York Review Books Classics): My second Stefan Zweig novella wasn’t as good as my first, but that’s okay. This one’s more of a romantic melodrama, while Chess Story was a heavy-duty psychological crucible built around a chessboard. This one’s about the impossibility of fixing love in time, or of recapturing love we once had. While the emotional states are convincing, the story itself simply wasn’t compelling to me. Also, no zombies.

How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III: I read this in preparation for a podcast with one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ron Rosenbaum. (That’ll post shortly.) Ron’s written great articles over the years, and his previous books, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil and The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, are both worth reading. This one focuses on The Bomb and just how close we are to deliberate or accidental nuclear destruction. It’s a bit policy heavy, but Ron makes it readable and pretty darned engaging. He brings some literary meditation to the topic, but this one’s first and foremost about the threat of nuclear war, not Ron’s usual approach, which is (he said, reductively) to analyze our interpretations of a phenomenon and see what they say about us, rather than go after the heart of the phenomenon itself. It’s an important book, but given the head-in-the-sand nature of our civilization, we’ll likely ignore it until it’s too late.

Selected Stories: A bunch of these cleaned the meh taste of Journey Into the Past. They’re all novellas, almost all told to our narrator by another party, and several of them will break your heart. I nearly plotzed over the story of Buchmendel, the Galician Jewish book dealer who gets into trouble during WWI by not having any idea that WWI is going on. The romantic melodramas of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fantastic Night and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman show that Zweig can employ pitched emotional states while still delivering a devastating story. After Chess Story, pick this one up.

The Silence of Trees: I read the debut novel by Valya Dudycz Lupescu in preparation for another podcast interview. We tried recording in mid-December, but she had just done the planes, trains and automobiles circuit to get from Chicago to Philadelphia and wasn’t at her most coherent. We’ve rescheduled for my next Chicago trip. It’s a novel about a Ukrainian-American matriarch who has suppressed her pre-American life from her family, and how she deals with that as she grows old. It opened my eyes to some of the non-Jewish victims of WWII, and how terrible the conditions were after it ended. There’s a certain lack of psychology to the narrator, which I THINK is a symptom of the character’s suppression; I’ll ask Valya about it in April when we record.

Night Train: Martin Amis tries to tell a police procedural about a suspicious suicide. The narrator, a boxy female detective, has to have a literary background in order to accommodate some of Amis’ prose, but he reins it in somewhat. It’s . . . not great. I mean, “great” is London Fields and Money. This one has some interesting observations in it, and the cloud of unknowing around the suicide/murder is a neat literary device, but I assume he was trying to make some sorta gender statement by naming his female narrator Mike Hoolihan. Give this one a pass, unless you’re on a serious Amis binge.

1984: I ended the year with Orwell’s final novel, which I’d last read 20 years earlier. It’s a lot more vivid to me now, but that’s the nature of re-reading as a grown-up, I suppose. I don’t think I really got the perils of Communism/Totalitarianism when I was younger. Reading it now, I think the real horror isn’t the Thought Police or Room 101, but the crumbling cigarettes, the artificial gin, the dull razors and all the other minutiae of colorless life on Airstrip One. (I was also struck this time by the awkwardness with which Orwell introduced some of the concepts of the book, but I think that’s typical of a non-science-fiction writer trying to work in that genre.)

So there we are: 52 weeks, 51 books! I’m in the midst of Bleak House right now, and am putting together a selection of stuff I’d like to get to in 2013. Most of those pulls are longer works, so don’t expect another giganto-post like this one next year!

In case you want a ranking, here are my top 10 of new reads I finished in 2012:

  1. Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
  2. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
  3. Short Stories – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
  4. The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
  5. A whole ton of Flannery O’Connor
  6. Austerlitz – WG Sebald
  7. History of Rome, books I-X – Livy
  8. Selected Stories – Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press ed.)
  9. World War Z – Max Brooks
  10. Money – Martin Amis

The musicalized, heat-filled dream of possessing his beloved

I went to Homecoming at St. John’s College this weekend. I got my master’s degree there, but I consider it my alma mater much more than I do my undergrad institution. I had a good time; it wasn’t as transformative as the Piraeus seminar I attended this past May/June, but it was a great opportunity to reconnect with other students, tutors, and an old pal who came to visit on Saturday. I didn’t get to record any podcast conversations during the trip, but did reach out to a few potential guests.

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. Two weekends ago was the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD. The next weekend we had a wedding in Dawson, PA, about 375 miles from home. This weekend was Annapolis. Next weekend I leave to Madrid and hope that the riots settle down enough for me to get to my conference safely.

I took a half-day from work on Friday, after pounding out pages and sending PDFs to the contributors of the new ish, so they can send me their corrections in time for me to get the new issue out by Wednesday. I left for Annapolis around 2 in the afternoon and had to deal with a little traffic on the ride down, but got in safe and sound, albeit unfed.

I checked in at my hotel, then drove to campus, got my registration packet, picked up a powerbar-sorta thing for dinner, and headed over to the Homecoming lecture, The Musical Universe and Mozart’s Magic Flute, by Peter Kalkavage. Peter was the tutor for my preceptorial on Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. His 1991 essay on the role of Ulysses in The Divine Comedy was one of the things that convinced me to attend St. John’s. (It’s in this PDF.)

The lecture was way over my head, breaking down Tamino’s aria in technical ways to reveal its beauty. I’m not an opera guy and have no musical training to speak of, but I still enjoyed Peter’s exploration of the structure of the music and the effects Mozart achieved from his notes, tones, etc.

I seriously don’t have a vocabulary for this. In the Graduate Institute (the GI), we don’t receive a lot of the instruction that the undergrads do. They have music, languages (ancient Greek & French), and laboratory science. Because of our truncated schedules, we make do with a lot less. (Not that I’m complaining.) I sat with another GI during the lecture. We laughed when everyone in our section flipped the page of their sheet-music handout at the right moment, while we kept looking at the first bar. It’s always fun to be the uneducated one.

Early on, Peter put on a recording of the aria, which he would later play selections of on a piano (and sing particular segments to demonstrate certain progressions). While the recording played, he swayed a little at the lectern. That’s when my reverie began.

I thought of everything that I’ve experienced in the past few weeks. First, I thought about Jaime Hernandez, the cartooning genius, choking up while telling an SPX audience about a scene from a Tyrone Power movie, The Eddie Duchin Story.

I started recalling moments from SPX: meeting people in autograph lines, arguing (gently) with Chris Ware over how “Gill Sans” is spelled, buying art from Jaime and his brother Beto, sitting at a barroom table with the Mt. Rushmore of modern cartooning (the Hernandezes, Ware, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns were on hand), trying to talk Kevin Huizenga into recording a podcast next time I’m in St. Louis.

From there to Michael Dirda’s house on the way back to NJ. Looking over his bookshelves, noting the UK hardcover of A Frolic of His Own, discovering that third Nabokov collection of lectures on literature, spying the brick of Kingsley Amis’ letters on the shelf behind Dirda while I interviewed him.

A week in NJ followed, with Rosh Hashanah and then the annual conference I help host. Six or seven hundred people come to a hotel to participate in the show, and it always leaves me exhausted, but at least it didn’t leave me in the emergency room like last year’s anxiety-sleeplessness-caffeine feedback loop did.

Right after the conference finished, I drove home, unpacked, then repacked, and Amy & I drove out to Dawson for a wedding: Six-plus hours in the car on 78 and 76, culminating in a dirt road (Lucky Lane) in the dark before arriving at the hotel. Touchscreen cheesesteak at a truck-stop Wawa; a little local bookstore daring enough to have William S. Burroughs’ Queer and Junky on end-cap display (picked up a used copy of The Two Cultures by CP Snow); meeting gin freaks and elderly computer bazillionaires at the wedding; finishing The Good Soldier, on Dirda’s recommendation; watching eight or nine of the male wedding guests gathering in the middle of the dance floor for a bizarre choreographed haka-polka hybrid set to Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business”; passing on karaoke.

Sunday morning, we drove out to Fallingwater, about 40 minutes away, before heading back to NJ. It was impossible and gorgeous and everything I hoped it would be, and it made me feel a little sad to be returning to the standard nine-room bi-level of our neighborhood. I thought about the engineer in Local Hero telling Peter Riegert and Peter Capaldi, “Dream large.” I got another touchscreen cheesesteak on the drive home.

Worked frantically through the next week, punctuated with a 25-hour break for Yom Kippur. In addition to the standard fast (no food or drink), I decided I’d really get out of myself and not look at a screen for that span: no iPhone, no computer, no TV. It was as liberating as I expected. By the time I checked my e-mail after breaking my fast Wednesday night (at Greek City in Ramsey), I had 35 messages on my personal e-mails, only a few of which I wanted to respond to, and none of which were imperative.

I prayed Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon with the Chabad that I visited in past years. They’ve always been accommodating, no matter how slack of a Jew I am. Some of the older gents in the congregation either recognized me from past years or just wanted to introduce themselves and make new acquaintances, which was nice. I’m so bad about joining community; I’m much better with afflicting myself.

At the end of mid-day prayers, we received a blessing from a kohen. I’d never been present for that before. We were instructed to look in his direction, but not to make eye contact during the blessing. It’s customary to cover one’s eyes with one’s tallis during this. The man in front of me set a good screen, however, so I was able to look forward without looking on the kohen’s face.

When I wasn’t at Chabad, I passed the time by re-reading King Lear, since I’d signed up for a 90-minute seminar in it for Homecoming. I hadn’t read it in years, and this reading may have been skewed a bit by the fast, since I was going without caffeine for this stretch.

After mid-day, I drove out to Nyack, NY to walk around and pass sometime. I discovered my favorite bookstore there was gone, replaced by a dry cleaner. I visited another store, the fiction department of which was filled with stacks of trade paperbacks. I tried looking at some back Paris Reviews in a stack, but it started to tip, then bumped another tower of books. I caught both of them and struggled to get them stable again without anyone at the front of the store noticing. A day of affliction can always use a little levity.

And then it was back to work, and then on to Homecoming, where this reverie began. I scrawled these reminiscences all over the backs of the sheet-music handouts. I also wrote down some details of a wonderful dream I had the night before, where I read the profile of an author who wrote a book that, according to a hybrid of Chip Delany, Michael Dirda and Junot Diaz, I would love. The book and the author don’t exist, but I retained the title of the novel, and woke up and wrote it down. I used to dream a lot more about fully-formed works of art, but it hasn’t happened in a while. I’m afraid of what that means.

Among all these notes Friday night, I wrote, “Made PDFs for contributors; put on conference.” Then I wrote, “It’s funny how unimportant those things are, and how necessary for me to live this beauty. How little of work will I remember as I grow old, and how much will I hold onto from everything else?”

Thanks for sticking around. Here are the books I bought at the college store on Saturday:

St. John's College bookstore run

Podcast: 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.”

Listen to the conversation: Virtual Memories – season 2 episode 11 – Fire and Bleak House

bopod

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.

The Virtual Memories Show is now on iTunes! If you’d like to subscribe, visit our iTunes page!

If you’d like to check out past episodes, you can find us on iTunes or visit the Podcast Archive! And why don’t you friend the Virtual Memories Show at our Facebook page? It’d make my mom happy.

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!

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