Episode 159 – Burton Pike

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Virtual Memories Show #159:
Burton Pike

“When you translate, you are digging into not so much the psyche of the author but the psyche of the author’s use of language.”

51EULu1tNBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Translator and emeritus literature professor Burton Pike joins the show to talk about his lifetime in the arts, the musicality and rhythm of language, the experience of translating early Proust, whether national literature departments are an outdated concept, the peculiarities of various Swiss ethnicities, how his dream project — Musil’s The Man Without Qualities — fell into his lap, and more! Give it a listen!

“The Man Without Qualities is written not from a literary but a scientific point of view. It’s predicated on the fact that everything changes and nothing stays stable. And of course that includes this novel itself.”

We also talk about the joys of hitchhiking across Europe in the ’50s, the reasons he came to New York and the reasons he stays, the disappearance of high German culture — Goethe, Schilling, et al. — from postwar Germany, the problems with Moncrieff’s fruity translation of Proust, his objection to calling Die Verwandlung The Metamorphosis, and more! Go listen!

“When a German is in sight, Swiss Germans revert to their native patois, because they’re horrified that they’ll be taken for German. The French look down on French Swiss and Belgians, of course, because they’re not French. The Swiss French, their faces are glued to the window pane of France. And the Italian Swiss? They’re perfectly happy and at home and have no problem.”

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

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

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About our Guest

25535972945_f40867c27e_zBurton Pike is professor emeritus of comparative literature and Germanic languages and literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. He did his undergraduate studies at Haverford College and received his PhD from Harvard University. He has taught at the University of Hamburg, Cornell University, and Queens College and Hunter College of the City University of New York. He has also been a Visiting Professor at Yale University. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and a Fulbright fellowship. He was awarded the Medal of Merit by the City of Klagenfurt, Austria, for his work on Robert Musil. Finalist and special citation, PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize for editing and co-translating Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. He is the winner of the 2012 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for Gerhard Meier’s Isle of the Dead.

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 Professor Pike’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same setup. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Head by me.

Episode 148 – The Guest List 2015

Virtual Memories Show: The Guest List 2015

It’s time for our year-end Virtual Memories tradition: The Guest List! I reached out to 2015’s podcast guests and asked them about the favorite book(s) they read in the past year, as well as the books or authors they’re hoping to read in 2016! More than 30 responded with a dizzying array of books. (I participated, too!) So now that you’ve got your Hanukkah and/or Christmas gelt, the Virtual Memories Show offers up a huge list of books that you’re going to want to read! Get ready to update your wish lists!

This year’s Guest List episode features selections from nearly 3 dozen of our recent guests! So go give it a listen, and then visit our special Guest List page where you can find links to the books and the guests who responded.

(Also, check out the 2013 and 2014 editions of The Guest List for more great book ideas!)

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Your illustrious podcast-host, as drawn by Roger Langridge

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About our Guests

The guests who participated in this year’s Guest List are Derf Backderf, Anthea Bell, John Clute, Michael Dirda, Matt Farber, Jonathan Galassi, Brad Gooch, Langdon Hammer, Liz Hand, Jennifer Hayden, Ron Hogan, Dylan Horrocks, David Jaher, Kathe Koja, Jonathan Kranz, Peter Kuper, Lorenzo Mattotti, JD McClatchy, Scott McCloud, Michael Meyer, Dan Perkins (a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow), Summer Pierre, Witold Rybczynski, Dmitry Samarov, Elizabeth Samet, Liesl Schillinger, Posy Simmonds, Levi Stahl, Rupert Thomson, Irvine Welsh, Warren Woodfin, Jim Woodring, Claudia Young, and me, Gil Roth! Check out their episodes at our archives!

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. 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 Logic Pro.

Episode 145 – Kathe Koja and John Clute

 

Virtual Memories Show #145:
Kathe Koja and John Clute

“I started writing stories as soon as I knew what stories were. I taught myself to type when I was 8 years old, because I couldn’t write fast enough.”

IllustrationNovelist and immersive theater director Kathe Koja joins the show to talk about her new novel, The Bastards’ Paradise, the arc of her career from splatterpunk (hey, it was the ’90s) to YA to the 19th C. romance of her Poppy trilogy, the meaning of Detroit, her life-changing experience at a staging of Sleep No More, the joys (and perils) of defying genre conventions, the epiphany of brutally murdering Tweddle-Dee, saving her first novel (from when she was 14) to feel better about herself, why great poetry is like IV drugs, and more! Give it a listen!

“I think the story of the wrongness of science fiction is like an exposure of the nature of homo sapiens on this planet. Science fiction goes wrong because we go wrong, and it does it with great clarity. I want a record of that and I want to see how we go wrong and how we can learn.”

Then John Clute returns to the show to talk about establishing the Clute Science Fiction Library @ Telluride! Also, he uses the word “haecceity” in conversation, which is a Virtual Memories first! Go listen!

We talk about some books and a couple of movies in this episode. Here’s a list of them:

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

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About our Guests

Kathe Koja’s 16th novel, The Bastards’ Paradise, is just out from Roadswell Editions. Her other novels include The Cipher, Skin, Strange Angels, Buddha Boy, Talk, and Headlong. Her work has won numerous awards, been multiply translated, and optioned for film and performance. As a director/producer, she leads the performance group nerve in creating immersive live events.

19655441552_fe367d5d1a_mVia John Clute‘s entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

(1940- ) Canadian novelist and sf critic, in the UK from 1969; married to Judith Clute from 1964. He has been the partner of Elizabeth Hand since 1996. His first professional publication, a long sf-tinged poem called “Carcajou Lament”, appeared in Triquarterly for Winter 1960 (i.e. in 1959), though he only began publishing sf proper with “A Man Must Die” in New Worlds for November 1966, where much of his earlier criticism also appeared. This criticism, despite some studiously flamboyant obscurities, remains essentially practical, and has appeared mostly in the form of reviews, many of which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Foundation, Washington Post, Omni, Times Literary Supplement, New York Times, New York Review of Science Fiction, Interzone, Los Angeles Times, Observer, Science Fiction Weekly (see Online Magazines), the Independent, Strange Horizons and elsewhere. He has written two regular review columns: Excessive Candour for Science Fiction Weekly between 1997 and 2009; and Scores, intermittently in The Infinite Matrix 2001-2003, regularly in Interzone between 2005 and 2008, and in Strange Horizons from 2010. Selections from this work, almost always revised, have been assembled in Strokes: Essays and Reviews 1966-1986 (coll 1988), Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews (coll dated 1995 but 1996), Scores: Reviews 1993-2003 (coll 2003), Canary Fever: Reviews (coll 2009) and Stay (coll 2014). An ongoing project to construct models of story “moves” in the literatures of the fantastic is represented by a set of connected motif entries in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) with John Grant [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] and in The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (2006), as well as in Fustian (2006 chap) with Jason Van Hollander, a long interview focused on these issues. In later essays – like “Fantastika in the World Storm” (Spring 2008 Foundation) and “Physics for Amnesia” (October 2008 The New York Review of Science Fiction), both assembled in revised form with other essays as Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (coll 2011) – he has suggested that a central task for Fantastika in the twenty-first century is to dissolve the cultural Amnesia that has arguably consumed the Western world since World War Two (see Horror in SF; Postmodernism and SF). Primarily for his critical work, he received a Pilgrim Award in 1994, the IAFA Award as Distinguished Guest Scholar in 1999, and a Solstice Award (see SFWA Grand Master Award) in 2012.

In 1960 Clute was Associate Editor of Collage, an ill fated Chicago-based Slick magazine which in its two issues did manage to publish early work by Harlan Ellison and R A Lafferty. He served as Reviews Editor of Foundation 1980-1990, and was a founder of Interzone in 1982; he remained Advisory Editor of that magazine until 2004, and then contributed the column mentioned above. He was the Associate Editor of the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; vt The Science Fiction Encyclopedia 1979), which won a Hugo award, and was co-editor of the much-expanded second edition The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993; rev 1995; further rev vt Grolier Science Fiction: The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 1995 CD-ROM; further rev 1999), for which he shared 1994 Hugo and Locus awards with Peter Nicholls. Though Clute and Nicholls were listed as editors, the book was in fact written mostly by them and Associate Editor Brian Stableford. The current third edition, again much expanded as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (online from 2011) edited by John Clute and David Langford with Peter Nicholls serving as Editor Emeritus and Graham Sleight as Managing Editor, has similarly been written in the main by its editors and Contributing Editors; it won a Hugo as Best Related Work in 2012. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995), which he wrote solo and for which he also received a Hugo in 1996, is a companion to sf, not in any way connected to the encyclopedias listed above. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) with John Grant, for which both editors shared a 1998 Hugo, deals with fantasy within a frame broadly compatible with that governing this Encyclopedia, which is its elder sibling.

Over his career, Clute has published several sf stories and two novels: The Disinheriting Party (in New Worlds Quarterly 5, anth 1973, ed Michael Moorcock; exp 1977), which is Equipoisal with the fantastic, but demurs into rationalizations at the end; and Appleseed (2001), which is a Space Opera with an anti-Religion bias. The Made Minds (AIs) who dominate much of the action manifest themselves throughout as Avatars allied to a Forerunner mentor in support of all surviving humans, who are shunned because of the sexual (see Sex) odour they emit; but as they are genetically deaf to god (see Communications; Gods and Demons), the galaxy-wide diaspora of Homo sapiens has created a Pariah Elite destined to become central combatants in the coming universal War against the Entropy-generating deity, as proclaimed for the first time in the book’s Slingshot Ending. [JC]

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation with Ms. Koja was recorded at the Saratoga Hilton on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder (except for when I screwed up the recording and used my Zoom H2n backup). The session with Mr. Clute was done on my enCORE 200 & Zoom H5. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photos of Ms. Koja and Mr. Clute by me.

Episode 130 – The Cult of Experience and the Tyranny of Relevance

Virtual Memories Show #130:
Elizabeth Samet –
The Cult of Experience and the Tyranny of Relevance

“How do you learn things? How do you acquire the patience to admit when you don’t know things? I think those are really important things for an Army officer to know.”

41X6zxtIM4L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Elizabeth D. Samet has been a professor of English at West Point since 1997. We talk about the tension between education and training at the military academy, the importance of books to soldiers and officers serving overseas, learning West Point’s unique argot, preparing her students to be unprepared, trying (and failing) to convince Robert Fagles that Hector is the moral center of the Iliad, why she doesn’t teach Henry V to plebes, how not to get caught up in the tyranny of relevance, why she balked at learning the fine art of parachuting, and more! Give it a listen!

“The question I’m endlessly fascinated with is, what do we call war and what do we call peace and can we draw these nice distinctions? It seems to me right now that we can’t.”

NOTE: The opinions Elizabeth Samet expresses in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of West Point, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

We also talk about teaching students who are both future Army officers and 18-year-old kids, how West Point and the student body changed after 9/11, her new anthology (Leadership) and her first two books (Soldier’s Heart and No Man’s Land), her house-on-fire list of books to save, her quarrel with Plato, and her adoration of Simeon’s Maigret novels. Bonus: I tell a long, awful and emotional story from last weekend (it starts around the 75:00 mark, so feel free to stop long before that).

“I have this idea about Plato: no one loves Plato who does not already think himself a guardian.”

We talk about a lot of of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):

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

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Samet_0044F PUB-Bachrach©Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (FSG). Her first book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Picador), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. Samet’s work has appeared in various publications, including the The New York Times, The New Republic, and Bloomberg View. She is also the editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, which is out this month from Norton. Samet won the 2012 Hiett Prize in the Humanities and is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a professor of English at West Point.

Credits: This episode’s music is On, Brave Old Army Team by West Point Marching Band. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Samet’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Formal photo of Prof. Samet by Bachrach; bookshelf photo of Prof. Samet by me.

Episode 113 – Palimpsest

Virtual Memories Show:
Michael Meyer – Palimpsest

“When you look at the history of northeast China, it’s all successive regimes that have tried to import their version of civilization into this area, and they’ve all failed.”

meyer-cover200When he was a kid in Minnesota, Michael Meyer papered his walls with National Geographic maps. A Peace Corps stint in 1995 began his 20-year odyssey in China, yielding two books, true love, and a unique perspective on the world’s most populous country. We talk about his latest book, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China (Bloomsbury), life in rural China compared to suburban MN, the country’s changes in the past two decades, the flexibility of the Communist party, China’s uses and abuses of history, the tortured history of the Manchuria region, the need to explode Americans’ myths about the country and its people, our favorite jet-lag remedies, and the Chinese use of “uh” as a conversational placeholder. Give it a listen!

“China isn’t a billion-plus people marching in lockstep. Nor is it some mastermind sitting in some opulent room in Beijing and declaring, ‘Now we will do this!'”

We also get into the time the Beijing police took Michael in so he could teach them American curse-words, why it’s safe to be a writer but not to be a journalist, China’s transition from individual farms to an agribusiness model, why the time to write a book is when the book you want to read doesn’t exist, the differences in storytelling modes between Americans and Chinese, his debts to Bruce Chatwin, Pearl S. Buck, and Ian Frazier, and how tens of thousands of Jews wound up in the town of Harbin.

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

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About our Guest

Michael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He first came to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps, and for over a decade has contributed from there to The New York Times, Time, the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Record, Reader’s Digest, Slate, Smithsonian, This American Life and many other outlets.He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, as well as residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He recently taught Literary Journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, and wrote the foreword to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, a collection of Scottish explorer John Thomson’s early images. He is a current member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, and an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches Nonfiction Writing. Michael’s new book, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, was published by Bloomsbury in February, 2015.

Credits: This episode’s music is Life in a Northern Town by Dream Academy. The conversation was recorded at the Bloomsbury offices 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. Meyer by me.

Podcast: Critical Mass

Frank Wilson on books!

Virtual Memories Show: Frank Wilson – Critical Mass

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

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

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

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

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

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About our Guest

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

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

Podcast: From Billiards to Bach

Peter Kalkavage on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories: Peter Kalkavage – From Billiards to Bach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About our Guest

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

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

Podcast: Reading Maketh a Full Man

Note: DG Myers died on Sept. 26, 2014, about 6 months after we recorded this episode. You can read my contribution to his festscrhift here.

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:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

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.

Another Year, In the Books: 2013

As he worked on the room, and as it began slowly to take a shape, he realized that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughnesses disappear, the gray weathering flake way to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture — as he repaid his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.
—John Williams, Stoner

Click on the pic above to embiggen

I started the 2012 edition of Another Year, in the Books with a quote from the great book critic Michael Dirda. I have another one on hand from this year’s crop, but figured I’d lead off with one from the best novel I read in 2013. Still, if you’re pining for some Dirda, here you go:

More and more, I sense that focused reading, the valuing of the kind of scholarship achieved only through years spent in libraries, is no longer central to our culture. We absorb information, often in bits and pieces and sound bites; but the slow, steady interaction with a book, while seated quietly in a chair, the passion for story that good novels generate in a reader, what has been called the pleasure of the text — this entire approach to learning seems increasingly, to use a pop phase, “at risk.” Similarly, even a basic knowledge of history, classical mythology, and the world’s literatures now strikes many people as charmingly antiquarian. Or irrelevant. Or just sort of cute.
—Michael Dirda, “Millennial Readings: Dec, 5 1999,” Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments

I finished reading 38 books in 2013, although I did read one of them twice. Since this was the year that I really focused on producing a good podcast and bringing in good authors as guests, just about half of those books were ones I read to prep for interviews. That’s not to say they were like homework! In fact, a lot of them opened me up to new areas of thought, and some were simply authors I’d long overlooked. I don’t have any regrets about spending time with those books, nor with the 10 books that were rereads from past years (marked with an (r) in the writeup below, after the authors’ names).

It feel like my life is really the act of reading and rereading.

The only downside to rereading is that it’s time I don’t spend with a new (to me) book. That picture of the “class of 2013″ adds up to about 37 linear inches of books (click here for a larger version on Flickr). The total shelf-space in my library I currently have devoted to books (not including comics and magazines) is about 1250 linear inches. That means this 2013 crop constitutes less than 3% of the total amount of books in my library. The 2012 crop was 51 books, which is just insane.

Now, some of those books are duplicates, like the two translations of Proust, the Library of America collections of Philip Roth, the sentimentally held-onto editions of Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters, the five different editions of The Leopard, and other items that should held indicate that I’m a bit deranged.

But if we knock off, say, 100 linear inches of books from that count, that only gets us up to 3.2% of the current library. Meaning, if I was starting afresh and not bringing new books in, it would take me a little more than 30 years at this pace to work my way through everything.

But of course I’m not starting afresh, and I did just order some new books this morning. I’m also waiting for advance review copies (ARCs) of books from upcoming podcast-guests. So as I think I pointed out in the 2011 edition, my relationship with my library is really my relationship with death.

So I guess I better get to work telling you about the past year’s reading so I can get on with reading next year’s books! (Oh, and go check out this podcast so you can find out my guests’ favorite books from 2013!)

Bleak HouseCharles Dickens (r) – I should probably do these write-ups as I finish reading the books. For the life of me, I’m not sure why I began rereading this one. It’s one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read, so I’m glad I returned to it after 20+ years. I read the book’s saddest scene in a Five Guys burger joint and still kinda teared up.

ConfusionStefan Zweig – I think my Zweig expectations were too high after the great experiences I had with Chess Story and a collection of his shorter fiction in 2012. This was . . . good. Not great. Not keeping me utterly enthralled, but not boring me. It’s about a man who gets sent to university because he’s a wastrel, and becomes a great student, under the thrall of a masterful professor prone to mysterious behavior. The confusion of the title becomes clear to modern readers, but I don’t know how veiled or coded it was back in the 1920s, when Zweig wrote it. As I think about it a little for this writeup, I’m actually warming to it a little, in part because of its contrast with Stoner, which I’ll get to later.

The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of WarFred Kaplan – This is the first one I read for a podcast guest, and boy, was it a doozy. Kaplan’s a really good writer on military issues, and he brings a ton of clarity to the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the success of counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in the latter, its futility in the former, and how the guys behind COIN tried to shake up a U.S. military establishment that — post-Vietnam — wanted no part of this sort of warfare (despite getting immersed in it several times since the end of the Cold War). I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books, but this one was fantastic. Listen to our podcast about it!

Lucky JimKingsley Amis – I’m not sure why this one didn’t grab me the way it has so darn many readers, but I’m starting to be concerned with the number of university-based novels I’ve been reading in the past year or so. I hesitate to say it was “too British,” but it might belong to a very specific type of British writing that I just don’t appreciate. Could also be the postwar era in which it was written and takes place; between that & the university setting, it’s like an alien environment to me. I wonder if I’d have appreciated it more when I was younger, a perverse notion given how so many other books have flowered for me in middle age. Here’s another guy’s perspective.

A Sport and a PastimeJames Salter – I’d heard of Salter a few times over the years, but never tried him out until the publicity wave for his new novel, All That Is. This is another novel that’s almost contemporary and yet requires a recognition of the time & setting, the morals that were in place, etc. The prose itself had some beautiful, Tropic of Cancer-ish passages, although Salter’s main precursor looks to be Hemingway, with whom I’ve never exactly clicked. I enjoyed it enough to give another Salter novel a read later in the year.

Engine SummerJohn Crowley – I had heard that this short novel is the second-best book by Crowley, behind his masterpiece, Little, Big, and is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever. I can’t argue with that, although my SF reading peaked during my teenage years. The way-post-apocalyptic setting reminded me a little of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but there’s so much more going on in this book, and it’s tied together with an amazing plot device. I’d only read Crowley’s “fantasy” books before this, if that’s what you’d call Little, Big and the AEgypt novels, and now I kinda wish he wrote some more SF.

The Original 1982Lori Carson – One of my favorite singer/songwriters wrote her first novel! And I got to interview her about it! The publicity material described it as a cross between Almost Famous and Sliding Doors, and that’s about right. The lead character is a Lori Carson stand-in who had an abortion in 1982 and regrets it enough to reimagine a life in which she kept her baby. The narrative swings from her imagined life to her reality, although not in a disconcerting way. It’s a beautiful little book about the big and little decisions we make and how life sometimes doesn’t pay attention to what we want or do. Listen to our podcast about it!

Readings: Essays and Literary EntertainmentsMichael Dirda – A collection of columns from the Washington Post Book World c.1993-1999 by one of our best living book critics. Dirda’s work has always brought me joy and it was honor to sit down with him for an interview in 2012. These are appreciations, humor pieces, and brief essays, and if there’s an elegiac tone about the lost art of close reading, they’re still full of wonder. I oughtta re-interview him in 2014. Listen to our podcast from 2012!

Distrust That Particular FlavorWilliam Gibson – I love Gibson’s novels, but his nonfiction just isn’t as good. It seems that he finds it tough to straddle the line of non-fiction and personal writing. It’s not his fault, because he’s engaged in a really specific form of novel-writing, for the most part, but it does go to show that some writers don’t make the jump from form to form very well.

The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in ItalyWallis Wilde-Menozzi – I have to admit to an embarrassing fact; there are 37 individual books on this list, and only 4 of them were written by women. Oh, and I read all 4 of them in preparation for podcast interviews. Man, I gotta diversify, huh? That said, this book was one of the best I read this year. Ms. Wilde-Menozzi’s prose style is gorgeous and the book has wonderful insights from the 40-plus years she’s spent in Italy. She discusses the various cultures and class- and gender-structures she encountered there, but intercuts the quotidian and the political with segments on art and architecture. It was a joy to interview her and I’m awfully glad to have read this one. (I bought extra copies as presents for future pod-guests.) Listen to our podcast about it!

Chess StoryStefan Zweig (r) – I discovered this in 2012 and just find myself compelled to return to it. It’s an amazing novella about two men playing chess on a steamer from New York to Argentina during WWII. I have also given away many copies of this book, and bought two editions in German when I was in Nuremberg in October. Here’s one of the more beautiful passages:

From my own experience I was well aware of the mysterious attraction of the “royal game,” which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Mohammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end?

But keep in mind that it’s not all poetic language; it’s also got a devastating, inexorable plot. And it’s about the tension between imagination and the real, between art and politics. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but this book contains worlds. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it impossible to put down, and you’ll find yourself going back to it at the very least to tease out its storytelling mechanisms.

Moby-DickHerman Melville (r) – I re-re-reread this in 2009, but it was the book for this year’s Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College, so I jumped into the Pequod once again. The conversation we had about the book helped illuminate some pieces for me, esp. how the Quaker faith envisions God and how Ahab’s tension between that religion and his hunt for the whale tie the book in knots.

Little, BigJohn Crowley (r) – With Bleak House, Moby-Dick, and Little, Big, I guess this was my year for giant-sized re-reads, huh? I set up an interview this year with the author, John Crowley, so I returned to Edgewood and one of the finest American novels. And I was struck by the Americanness of it; it’s timeless and yet it’s also enmeshed in a post-Vietnam mindset of urban destruction and national malaise. Knowing the broad strokes of it, I had a better time immersing myself in the language and imagery, as well as teasing out some of the bits I found inscrutable the first time around. It was almost like having a floor-plan of the Drinkwaters’ house, which remains bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.

The only downside of this whole experience is that, when I met Crowley for the interview, I brought along my wife’s old mass market paperback of Little, Big for him to inscribe. She rereads the novel every year or two, as she’s done since she was a teen. And I either forgot to mention it or he didn’t hear me say it, but he . . . um . . . inscribed it to me instead of Amy. On the plus side, there’s enough room on the inscription line to add her name, so I plan on bringing it up to Readercon next July in hopes that he’ll be able to amend it. Listen to our podcast about it!

Sabbath’s TheaterPhilip Roth (r) – I don’t know what prompted me to pick this one up. I hadn’t read it since it came out in 1995, but it was a key work in Roth’s books of the past 15 years and, with Roth’s announcement of his “retirement” from writing, I gave it a go. Now I understand what was calling me back to it; almost all of Roth’s subsequent novels — the American Pastoral books, the Nemesis Quartet, The Dying Animal — all find their roots in this novel. Thread after thread, theme after theme, device after device, all crop up in Sabbath’s Theater. The lead, Mickey Sabbath, is also the last truly immense — I wanna say Shakespearean — character Roth created. Funnily enough, the book came up in two podcasts I recorded this year: both of those writers marveled over Sabbath’s Theater and how it separated Roth from the pack of his contemporaries.

Portrait Inside My Head: EssaysPhillip Lopate – Mr. Lopate was one of those Roth-admiring guests. I’d read a few of his pieces over the years, but when he consented to appear on my podcast, I only had a week or so to prepare. So I read more than 400 pages of his work in the span of 8 days, starting with this recent collection. At the risk of insulting the other fantastic writers and thinkers who’ve appeared on my show, I think Mr. Lopate’s command of his form — the personal essay — is greater than any other living writer’s at his or her form. This one has some great pieces in it; the centerpiece is The Lake of Suffering, Mr. Lopate’s essay about his child’s congenital illness over the first years of her life, but the topics are so varied that you’ll soon find yourself immersed in his erudition, personality and powers of observation. Listen to our podcast!

To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary NonfictionPhillip Lopate – Part of the “400 pages in 8 days” run. It’s a discussion of the craft of non-fiction — particularly Mr. Lopate’s branch of it — and it’s another book that I’ve bought multiple copies of, to give to friends and people who want to write. Listen to our podcast!

Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and NoiseDavid Rothenberg – This was easily the strangest book I read in 2013. One of my guests, Maxim Jakubowski, connected me with David to talk about this book, which springboards from the phenomenon of the 17-year cicada to the notion that mankind gained rhythm from background noise of insects. It’s a fun theory, and Rothenberg brings all sorts of science and art into the conversation, while also exploring human stories that may not exactly prove or disprove his hypothesis, but help build a narrative about the role of man in nature, and nature in man. There’s an accompanying CD, in which Rothenberg accompanies insects like the cicada on his clarinet. Really, it’s a fascinating book that I never would have come across were it not for the podcast. Listen to our podcast about it!

The OresteiaAeschylus (tr. Lattimore) (r) – I reread Aeschylus’ revenge trilogy because I was a chapter or two into the next book on this list, which is all about revenge, and figured I should get a little background on the topic from its early days. This time around, I had some questions that I should bring up the next time I’m down at St. John’s. Why didn’t the Eumenides go after Agamemnon when he killed his daughter Iphigenia (before the play begins)? After all, that’s a murder in the blood-line, which is what triggers the Furies’ pursuit of Orestes. And why is the first play named after Agamemnon when he only appears for one scene?

Payback: The Case for RevengeThane Rosenbaum – This book was dazzling, but I’m sure some people will find it infuriating. Mr. Rosenbaum, a law professor at Fordham (and also a novelist and essayist), argues that the legal system has eliminated the role of revenge in justice, to the detriment of society. I hesitate to say that it’s a very Hebraic notion of justice, so let’s say it’s an “un-Christian” notion. It bogs down a little on the chapter covering the neurobiology of revenge, but overall it’s an impressive and proscriptive piece of work about a key failing of the modern state. Listen to our podcast about it!

A Month in the CountryJL Carr – One of the tutors at St. John’s recommended this one during our Piraeus weekend on Moby-Dick in June. One Sunday afternoon, I sat down in my library and bought it on my Kindle. Three hours later, I got up and looked around with new eyes. It’s a wonderful, short novel (about 130 pages) about art, religion, class, sexuality and the upheaval of them all following WWI. It takes place in a sleepy town in the north of England, where a London-based art restorer takes month-long job uncovering and restoring a painting in a centuries-old church. There’s a movie of it starring very young Colin Firth and Ken Branagh, but give this one a read.

CheckpointNicholson BakerDavid Gates suggested I read this one, after I told him that I believe the worst crime of the Bush era is the amount of crappy art that came out from people who were opposed to the Bush era. It’s a conversation between two men, one of whom plans to kill George Bush. I’m of two minds about this book, neither of them good. First, I don’t think Baker has much of an ear for dialogue, and this is the second book I’ve read of his that consists solely of dialogue. Second, if a major publishing house put out a book consisting of a conversation between two men about killing Barack Obama, it would face a shitstorm of unimaginable proportions. But it was fine for Knopf to publish a fantasy about murdering a sitting president, because he was on the red team? Dude, we live in one messed-up time.

Portnoy’s ComplaintPhilip Roth (r) – My brother asked me where he should start with Philip Roth. I told him, “Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater, for the short version.” Thane Rosenbaum, author of Payback (above), told me that his Roth really begins with The Ghost Writer. Still, I thought I’d go back to Roth’s breakthrough book and see if it would still make me laugh and cringe. It did.

The Death of Ivan IlychLeo Tolstoy (r) – Oh, you know: just wanted to cheer myself up.

StonerJohn Williams – I think it’s the best novel I read this year. It’s certainly the most harrowing. I’d heard about this book and its “lost classic” status for a few years now; I started it after reading an appreciation of it in the New Yorker by Tim Kreider. (I’d bought it a few months earlier at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans.) Kreider refers to Stoner as the anti-Gatsby, and I think that’s dead-on. It tells the story of an English lit professor in Missouri, his humble beginnings, his frustrations in his profession and his marriage, and the few brief, magical moments of his life. All told, it chronicles a forgotten, forgettable life in beautiful but plain prose. I suppose I should compare it to the other university books I read this year, Lucky Jim and Confusion. There’s little overlap with Zweig’s book, but it does make an interesting contrast with Amis’ Lucky Jim, both in terms of being an Unlucky Stoner and in the way in which its very prose styles and depth of feeling form a midwestern contrast to Amis’ ‘Londonness.’ Please give this book a read but keep in mind that it’s almost unremittingly sad and frustrating. And please ignore this idiot.

A Month in the CountryJL Carr (r) – Well, a week or so after I read this the first time, I got a notice that the Annapolis chapter of the St. John’s Alumni Association would be discussing this book during a weekend that I was going to be down in Bethesda, MD. So I gave it a re-read and attended the conversation. The downside was that this session took place during the morning of Yom Kippur, so I was fasting, light-headed and thick-tongued. Still, it was good to talk with some Johnnies about it; I miss book-conversation more than any other aspect of my college/grad-school years. Well, except for the basketball and the girls.

VinelandThomas Pynchon (r) – Don’t ask me why. It was just because Pynchon’s new novel was coming out soon, and I had a feeling that it might have some similarities to Vineland, which I detested the first time I read it. (Note: not only do I remember the circumstances of buying that books — I was in a car with my old man in Ridgewood, NJ, saw it in a window display in the B. Dalton, told him to pull over and ran in to buy it — I also remember the funny dream I had about it before it came out: the author bio on the back cover-flap read, “Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., Gravity’s Rainbow and Slow Learner,” but the author photo was — get this — of an empty room!) I got more out of it this time, insofar as I came into it with a little more perspective on how the Reagan years were perceived, especially by Californians. It’s still not a good novel, but I can slot it more easily into Pynchon’s body of work and, in my 40s, I can cut a lot more slack for authors than I could when I was 19.

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in IranHooman Majd – I had never given much thought to what day-to-day life in Iran is like, so this book was a revelation. I read it in advance of an interview with the author, an Iranian-American journalist who chronicles a year of living in Iran with his (very American) wife and their 8-month-old child. It put me in mind of 1984 in several ways. Beyond the obvious perspective of living in a surveillance state, there are also all the little ways in which western sanctions against Iran affect its populace. I always felt that Orwell’s depictions of crappy gin and subpar cigarettes in Airstrip One are at least as compelling as his depictions of torture at the end of his book. Majd also includes a harrowing section in which a friend describes his time in Evin prison after the 2009 elections, a sort of Room 101 but with a glimmer of hope. It’s a fascinating book, both in its humanization of Iran’s people, but also in the implication that the middle-eastern country that has the most in common with Iran just might be Israel. Listen to our podcast about it!

Lucky Bruce: A Literary MemoirBruce Jay Friedman – I interviewed the great cartoonist and artist Drew Friedman for the podcast, and mentioned that I’d love to record one with his dad sometime. He was pessimistic, but I figured I’d start reading up on the guy, just in case. My only experiences with Bruce Jay Friedman were his nonfiction and his cameo in my favorite unwatched Woody Allen movie, Another Woman, so I dived into this 2011 memoir. It’s a hoot, chronicling BJF’s literary development, his stint in the USAF, his magazine-writing/editing career, his leap into the freelance world, his adventures in playwriting, his stints in Hollywood, his evenings at Elaine’s, his friendship with Mario Puzo, and more. The book barely discusses his family life and his kids, but that’s not the subject of it, I guess (or that’s his way of not dealing with his parenting skills). I was kinda thrilled to find out that BJF is a big fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m holding out hope that we’ll get a chance to record a podcast sometime. (I know: reading someone’s memoir without actually reading his work is similar to the time I read Stephen King’s On Writing without having read any of his fiction. I’m weird.)

The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its MeaningPeter Trachtenberg – I once joked that the Arts section of the New York Sun was composed by the Tyler Durden of my unknowingly insomniac self. Almost every day that section featured articles that seemed to be written just for me. Which may be why that paper went under. I had a similar vibe reading The Book of Calamities to prep for a podcast with the author. In his discussion of suffering and what it means, Trachtenberg covers ground that I would have gravitated to: Gilgamesh, Rwanda, the Book of Job, the Oresteia, the contextualizing of 9/11, the use of suffering as history, and more.The subject matter can make it a hard book, but I think it’s pretty worthwhile. Listen to our podcast about it!

Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and PersonsPeter Trachtenberg – Okay, this was a lot tougher of a book, even though it’s briefer and it’s about love instead of suffering. He takes the occasion of a lost cat and the kindasorta disintegration of his marriage to explore ideas of love, the workings — and misworkings — of memory, and . . . well . . . our relationship to cats. It’s also about the nature of writing non-fiction, a topic I find pretty interesting. Some of it delves deeply enough into domestic life that I felt a bit uncomfortable/intrusive, but that was the author’s choice, so hey. These two Trachtenberg books fit well together, and he’s another author I discovered through the network effect of the podcast. In this case, when I went up to VT to interview David Gates at Bennington’s low-residency MFA program, he was kind enough to show me around and introduce me to a few other writer-professors in the program, including Trachtenberg, Lopate, and a few others I hope to interview in 2014. Listen to our podcast about it!

EverymanPhilip Roth (r) – I read this every year or so. It’s about an old Jew who dies, and how his life has been defined to a large extent by ailments. It’s a very brief book, one that Roth considers part of his Nemesis Quartet. In some respects, it’s a muted version of Sabbath’s Theater, but its brevity doesn’t make it less effective.

The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual PersuasionVirginia Postrel – Another podcast-related book, but I read and enjoyed Ms. Postrel’s two previous books — The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style — so it’s not like I would’ve skipped this one. It’s a gorgeous piece of work about the history and effects of glamour. That may sound like a lightweight topic, but Ms. Postrel shows how it warrants seriousness. She avoids the easy out of saying, “Being susceptible to glamour is a sign of weakness,” and instead uses the phenomenon to explore what it means to be human and how (sometimes) illusions help us discover a deeper reality. Did that sound cliche or trite? I apologize. It’s a good, visually stunning book with lots of good insights into glamour and human behavior. Listen to our podcast about it!

The Fifty-First StateLisa Borders – Here’s what I said about it in the intro to our podcast conversation:

It takes place in the southern farmland of New Jersey, where a 17-year-old kid’s parents have just died in an awful car wreck. His half-sister, who’s about 20 years older and an artsy photographer in New York City, has to move back to her hometown to take care of him through his last year of high school. That’s a kind of simple pitch, but it’s a lovely novel. It’s more emotionally real than most contemporary fiction I’ve read, really getting into how grief can warp our behavior. Lisa also does a great job of portraying both what it’s like to be a 17-year-old bundle of hormones in a sleepy farm town, and to be in your mid-thirties and really not happy with having to leave the big city, even if your life there wasn’t exactly a barrel of monkeys. What I’m saying is, you should give this one a read.

Listen to our podcast about it!

The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global AntisemitismDaniel Goldhagen – I read this as prep for a podcast, but Mr. Goldhagen had to postpone, so I’m hoping to sit down with him and talk about antisemitism sometime in 2014. It’s not a conversation I’m looking forward to, exactly. Goldhagen paints a very bleak picture, drawing on the history and roots of antisemitism and its newest, global incarnation. He cites polls where countries that have virtually no Jews whatsoever (like China) nonetheless answer that Jews have too much power in their country. I was cheered that he supported one of my pet theories about the resurgence of antisemitism among white Europeans: a sense of shame over how they couldn’t wait to expel Jews from their countries during the Nazi era transforms into a form of resentment that is equally virulent against Jews. As in, the living Jews, both in Israel and in these countries, are a reminder of how awful their own people behaved during the war, and they take it out as rage against Jews, as if to imply that the Jews somehow deserved that awful treatment. Anyway, if you really wanna feel depressed for the future of Jews in this world, give this one a read.

Solo FacesJames Salter – More Hemingwayesque prose from James Salter, this time about mountain climbing. A past pod-guest told me how much he felt this book captured the feeling of climbing; I’ll have to take his word for it, as I’ve never climbed more than a 20–foot face in the woods near my home. This book contains one of the most savagely manly psychotherapy sessions ever. Its climax was so over the top that I felt uncomfortable about even laughing a little to defuse it.

Getting Personal: Selected EssaysPhillip Lopate – I’d begun this broad collection of Mr. Lopate’s essays during the buildup to our interview, but didn’t finish it until a few months later. If you’d like to get started reading his personal essays, this is a perfect place to start. As I mentioned earlier, he’s a master of this form. I was in awe of his control of language, tone, pacing, characterization, and more. Nowadays, when everyone has a “book of essays” that consists of little more than embarrassing stories from adolescence, it’s refreshing to see how wonderful this form can be. Listen to our podcast!

Barracuda in the AtticKipp Friedman – This is a new memoir from a son of Bruce Jay Friedman. It forms a nice companion to Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir, in that it actually covers the relationship of BJF to his family. You don’t have to know much about the family history to enjoy it; the stories are pretty self-contained and relate a youngest-son’s perspective on a wacky family dynamic. Kipp’s dad and two brothers (Drew and Josh Alan Friedman) each make lovely contributions to the book. Listen to our podcast about it!

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking BadBrett Martin – The author & I overlapped at college, though we don’t remember each other. A mutual friend did, and suggested I interview Brett for the show. I picked up a copy of his book at our local library and devoured it in two days. It’s a really insightful book about the recent golden age of TV drama, and the writer-creators who were at its core. The Difficult Men are both the male leads — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and others — and the aforementioned writer-creators — David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, Matthew Wiener, and others — and Brett does a great job of depicting the highs and lows of the writers’ rooms for these shows, how they managed to get on the air, how the viewing public approached them, and why we may not be in such a golden age now. If you dig those great TV shows of the past decade-plus, you need to read this one. Our podcast is coming up soon, so check the archives page after January 7.

The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay FriedmanBruce Jay Friedman – And here’s where the year ends. I started reading some of BJF’s stories so I’d get more of a flavor of his writing, in case an interview came together. Within 60 or 70 pages, I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. It was somewhere in the middle of “Detroit Abe,” the short story that would later become the movie Doctor Detroit, that it all clicked for me. I finally understood why my lyric flights always crashed, and my mystical expositions fizzled. 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. Now I just wish I was writing 30 or 40 years ago, when there was a market for this stuff. This past weekend, I began a new story and struggled like crazy with the first page of it. I gave up, frustrated. That night, I began reading a BJF story from this book, realized exactly what my opening line should be and why the previous iterations didn’t work, and went back downstairs to begin writing. If I didn’t sideline myself by writing this giant mess, I’m sure I’d have finished the story by now!

But seriously, I’m so glad to have made this discovery.

And that’s it for 2013’s books! According to my Kindle, I’m around 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, which I’d been meaning to start for a while. I also have a few books in from upcoming pod-guests, but I’m hoping to balance that with more of what’s already in my library. I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, Salter’s Light Years, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge , Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante’s Inferno (next June’s Piraeus book), Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and . . . but that’s already looking too ambitious, right?

Sigh. Seeya in 2014!