86 Dana Stevens Keaton (JP EF)

Dana Stevens joins Elizabeth and John to discuss Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Her fantastic new book serves as occasion to revel in the work and working world of Buster Keaton, that “solemn, beautiful, perpetually airborne man.” Although packed with fascinating tidbits from Keaton’s life, Camera Man is much more than just a biography. It performs its own airborne magic, lightly traversing topics like the crackdown on the use of children in vaudeville, the fluidity of roles before and behind the camera in early Hollywood and the doors that were briefly (ever so briefly) opened for female directors.

Among other treats, Dana unpacks one of Keaton’s early great “two-reelers” One Week ( a spoof of brisk upbeat industrial films) and his parodic “burlesques” e.g. of Lillian Gish.

People, Films, Books and Ideas in the conversation include:

Roscoe (“Fatty”) Arbuckle: got Keaton his start in early films like Butcher Boy, reportedly filmed the day Keaton first stepped onto a set. He said “Buster lived inside the camera.”

“Cinema of Attractions.” a phrase coined by film historian Tom Gunning to describe the way the early years of cinema (1895 to 1913, more or less) achieved success by way of gags, stunts, special effects and other dazzling technological innovations–rather than plot or character development,.

John and Dana rave about Keaton’s last great film (age 33!), The Cameraman (1928) and deprecate the later silents (with a silent caveat for the pancake scene Grand Slam Opera).

Mabel Normand: Arbuckle’s longtime collaborator and briefly a rising director–Charlie Chaplin kneecapped her at a crucial moment in her career. Dana singles out for special praise Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) starring Luke, the first canine movie star.

Singing in the Rain as a MGM-friendly myth-making explanation for Clara Bow’s eclipse (and the famous vocal failure moment: “I can’t stand ‘im“)

Steamboat Bill Jr. ( 1928, Buster Keaton feature) “Keaton’s most mature movie” says Dana.

Listen to the episode here.

Read the transcript here.

*85 Pu Wang and JP unpack their Cixin Liu interview


Our first August rebroadcast was John and Pu’s 2019 interview with SF superstar Cixin Liu (you may want to re-listen to that episode before this one!). Here, they reflect on the most significant things that Liu had said, and to ponder the political situation for contemporary Chinese writers who come to the West to discuss their work.

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In the original interview, Pu leans forward to fine-tune a translation….

They consider whether our world is like a cabinet in a basement, and what kind of optimism or pessimism might be available to science fiction writers, and extend the conversation from their interview about world building, realism, and film. They compare the interview to a recent profile of Liu in The New Yorker, and ponder the advantages and disadvantages of pressing writers to weigh in on the hot-button topics of the day (hint: RTB made the right choice!).

Discussed in this episode:

Cixin Liu, The Three Body ProblemThe Dark Forest, and Death’s End

Jiayang Fan, “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds” (New Yorker interview/profile)

Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity

George Melies (dir.), A Voyage to the Moon

Fritz Lang (dir.), Metropolis

Frant Gwo (dir.), The Wandering Earth

Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov

Listen to the episode here

Transcript available here

*84 Cixin Liu (JP, Pu Wang)


John and Pu Wang, a Brandeis professor of Chinese literature, spoke with science-fiction genius Cixin Liu back in 2019. His most celebrated works include The Three Body ProblemThe Dark Forest, and Death’s End.

When he visited Brandeis to receive an honorary degree, Liu paid a visit to the RTB lair to record this interview. Liu spoke in Chinese and Pu translated his remarks in this English version of the interview (the original Chinese conversation is at 刘慈欣访谈中文版 Episode 14c).

Mr. Liu, flanked by John and Pu (photo: Claire Ogden)

They discuss the evolution of Mr. Liu’s science fiction fandom, and the powerful influence of Leo Tolstoy on Mr. Liu’s work, which leads to a consideration of realism and its relationship to science fiction. Science fiction is also compared and contrasted with myth, mathematics, and technology.

Lastly, they consider translation, and the special capacity that science fiction has to emerge through the translation process relatively unscathed. This is a testament to science fiction’s taking as its subject the affairs of the whole human community–compared to the valuable but distinctly Chinese concerns of Mo Yan, or the distinctly Russian concerns of Tolstoy.

Discussed in This Episode:

Cixin Liu, The Three Body ProblemThe Dark Forest, and Death’s End

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Stanley Kubrick (dir.), 2001: A Space Odyssey

E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops

Mo Yan, Red Sorghum

Listen to the Episode Here

Read the transcript here

*83 Plotz and Ferry on Zadie Smith

In this 2019 conversation, rebroadcast now to follow up RTB 82, Elizabeth and John try their best to unpack Zadie Smith’s take on sincerity, authenticity and human sacredness; the “golden ticket” dirty secret behind our hypocritical academic meritocracy; surveillance capitalism as the “biggest capital grab of human experience in history;” and her genealogy of the novel. If we had to sum the day up with a few adjectives (and we do):  funny, provocative, resplendent, chill, generous, cantankerous.

Continue reading “*83 Plotz and Ferry on Zadie Smith”

*82 Zadie Smith in Focus (JP)


In this 2019 episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)

Continue reading “*82 Zadie Smith in Focus (JP)”

80 We are Not Digested: Rajiv Mohabir (Ulka Anjaria, JP)

Rajiv Mohabir is a dazzling poet of linguistics crossovers, who works in English, Bhojpuri, Hindi and more. He is as prolific as he is polyglot (three books in 2021!) and has undertaken a remarkable array of projects includes the prizewinning resurrection of a forgotten century-old memoir  about mass involuntary migration. (If you don’t need to read any further, Listen to the episode here).

He joined John and first-time host Ulka Anjaria (English prof, Bollywood expert and Director of the Brandeis Mandel Center for the Humanities) in the old purple RtB studio. During the conversation, Rajiv read and in one case sang poems from his wonderful recent books, Cutlish and Antiman.

Continue reading “80 We are Not Digested: Rajiv Mohabir (Ulka Anjaria, JP)”

79* Madeline Miller on Circe (GT, JP)


In this rebroadcast, John and Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (an occasional host and perennial friend of Recall this Book) speak with Madeline Miller, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Circe. 

They discuss Circe’s place in Greek mythology and in a retelling of the Odyssey “from below” or “from the side,” the concept of “mythological realism,” and the influence of The Once and Future King on Madeline’s writing. They touch too on the sweet family aspects that show up in Homer, and on Odysseus’s changing reputation throughout time. Madeline has two totally unexpected recommendations in our Recallable Books section.

Continue reading “79* Madeline Miller on Circe (GT, JP)”

72 Caryl Phillips speaks with Corina Stan (Novel Dialogue Crossover, JP )

Our second January Novel Dialogue conversation is with Caryl Phillips, professor of English at Yale and world-renowned for novels ranging from The Final Passage to 2018’s A View of the Empire at Sunset. He shares his thoughts on transplantation, on performance, on race, even on sports. Joining him here are John and the wonderful comparatist Corina Stan, author of The Art of Distances: Ethical Thinking in 20th century Literature. If you enjoy this conversation, range backwards through the RtB archives for comparable talks with Jennifer Egan, Helen Garner, Orhan Pamuk, Zadie Smith, Samuel Delany and many more.

Continue reading “72 Caryl Phillips speaks with Corina Stan (Novel Dialogue Crossover, JP )”

71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: fiction as streaming, genre as portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)

This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread.

Continue reading “71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: fiction as streaming, genre as portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)”

68* Martin Puchner: Gilgamesh to Amazon (EF, JP)

Book Industry Month continues with a memory-lane voyage back to a beloved early RtB episode. This conversation with Martin Puchner about the very origins of writing struck us as perfect companion to Mark McGurl’s wonderful insights (in RtB 67, published earlier this month) about the publishing industry’s in 2021, or as Mark tells it, the era of “adult diaper baby love.”

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Aside from being a fabulous conversation about Martin’s wonderful history of book production through the ages (The Written World) this episode brings back happy memories of Elizabeth and John piling their guests into a cozy sound booth at Brandeis, the kind of place that’s utterly taboo in Pandemic America.So travel with us back to 2019 for a close encounter with the epic of Gilgamesh. The three friends discuss the different stages of world writing–from the time of the scribes to the time of great teachers like Confucius, Socrates and Jesus Christ, who had a very complicated relationship to writing.

Continue reading “68* Martin Puchner: Gilgamesh to Amazon (EF, JP)”

67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon (JP, EF, 11/4)

RtB Book Industry month kicks off with a simple question: What do you make of Amazon? Is it the new Sears Roebuck? A terrifying monopoly threat? Satisfaction (a paperback in your mailbox, a Kindle edition on your tablet) just a click away? John and Elizabeth speak with Stanford English prof Mark McGurl, whose previous books include the pathbreaking The Program Era.

Continue reading “67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon (JP, EF, 11/4)”

54 Crossover Month #3: Novel Dialogue with Helen Garner (Elizabeth McMahon, JP)


Crossover Month continues with a scintillating Australian fiction episode from Novel Dialogue, a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

Continue reading “54 Crossover Month #3: Novel Dialogue with Helen Garner (Elizabeth McMahon, JP)”

33 RTB Books in Dark Times 9: Ben Fountain (JP)

Ben Fountain is far more than just the author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won RTB hearts and minds (and the National Book Award) long before it became a weird Ang Lee movie.

What is consoling and engaging the author of the best novel about America’s dismal experience in Iraq? American novels, especially those about Americans abroad (Joan Didion. say) have always done something special for him. Marilynne Robinson’s and James Baldwin’s work make us confront the reality that’s happening around us all the time, “a freaking massacre.” He carried the the (fictional but genuine) facts of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk in his head for forty years.

Continue reading “33 RTB Books in Dark Times 9: Ben Fountain (JP)”

29 RTB Books in Dark Times 6: Kim Stanley Robinson (JP)

Kim Stanley Robinson, SF novelist of renown, has three marvelous trilogies: The Three Californias, Science in the Capital and, most celebrated of all, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. His honors include many Locus, Hugo and Nebulae awards. Small fact connecting him to RTB-land: he completed a literature PhD directed by Frederic Jameson with a dissertation-turned-book on the  novels of Phillip K. Dick.

Stan and John start out with Stan’s emerging from the Grand Canyon in late March. Then they discuss Stan’s sense that SF is the realism of the day and his take on “cognitive estrangement.” Finally, they happen upon a shared admiration for the great epic SF poet, Frederick Turner.

Continue reading “29 RTB Books in Dark Times 6: Kim Stanley Robinson (JP)”

20 The Drama of Celebrity with Sharon Marcus (JP)

John sits down with Columbia University professor Sharon Marcus to discuss her latest book, The Drama of Celebrity, a tour-de-force argument about how stars are born, publicized, and in time devoutly scrapbooked by adoring fans.

They tackle a question at least as old as Sarah Bernhardt: who or what makes a star? Rather than crediting star making to the culture industry, to fans, or to star themselves, Sharon makes the case that all three forces together constitute a celebrity creation machine.

After discussing her archival work on theatrical scrapbooking in Indiana, Sharon pulls from the vaults a marvelous Hollywood memoir, Brooke Haywood’s Haywired. That triggers discussion of the studio system and how its models of celebrity are and are not with us today.

Continue reading “20 The Drama of Celebrity with Sharon Marcus (JP)”

15 In Focus: Zadie Smith (JP)

In this episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)
Continue reading “15 In Focus: Zadie Smith (JP)”