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.

Allen Tate, Fugitive poet (and author most famously of the tricky post-Eliotic 1928 “Ode to the Confederate Dead“)

Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted (1996; “a masterpiece of tone and mood and character and profound interiority”; the movie, not so much)

Joan Didion, Democracy (1984; she goes “straight after the heart of that mystery, what is America?“)

Marilynne Robinson. Listeners, do you prefer her incisive nonfiction (“Poetry of Puritanism“) or the deep, torqued interiority of her first novel, Housekeeping ?

Zadie Smith on the amazing, terrifying Americanness of Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” (also referenced in our Bottinelli episode!)

The Sugar Sphinx (photo from The New Yorker)

James Baldwin, A Letter to My Nephew (1962)

James Baldwin, e.g. If Beale Street Could Talk (Ben loves those Library of America volumes…)

Another Country (1962)

Giovanni’s Room (1956)

Sewanee Review, The Corona Correspondence

Chronicles of Now

George Saunders “A Letter to My Students….

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming Books In Dark Times Episodes: Martin Puchner from Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature, poet Elizabeth Bradfield, and Boston College’s Carlo Rotella.

32 RTB Books in Dark Times 8: Paul Saint-Amour (JP 5/20)

Who better to talk about Dark Times than the author of an unforgettable scholarly book about the grimness of the interwar years, Tense Future? Paul Saint-Amour, Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania and author of various prizewinning books and brilliant articles, joins John to talk about realism, escapism and the glories of science fiction.

Paul wonders if immersive reading is even possible during this terrible imminence. Can we really gaze at the dental work of the pandemical lion as its jaws open upon us? He goes on to praise “recursive” plots as glimpsed in time-travel narratives, which produce not interactivity with a text, but interpassivity; the immersion into a form that has its ending always waiting for readers from their very beginning. Throughout he manages to be pessimistic but hopeful.

Mentioned in this episode:

Russel Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)

Boccaccio, “The Decameron

Patrick White, “The Eye of the Storm” (1973)

Daniel Defoe, “Journal of the Plague Year

Laurence Wright, “End of October

Contagion (2011)

The Lady Eve (1941)

Henry James “Wings of the Dove” (1902)

Ted Chiang “Story of Your Life

Arrival (an octopus-friendly movie based on Chiang’s story)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969)

Martin Amis, “Time’s Arrow” (1991)

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” ( 1940; on the Jetzzeit, the strait-gate through which the Messiah can enter-The Messiah just hates empty homogeneous time.)

Interstellar (2014)

Charlotte Bronte Villette (1853)

Naomi Mitchison, “Memoirs of a Space Woman” (1962)

Doris Lessing, “Canopus in Argos

Doris Lessing, “Making of the Representatives for Planet 8” (1982)

Tempest (John’s only arcade game…)

Tempest: not the one by Shakespeare….

Ludonarrative dissonance (e.g. the problem of the “canon route”in such games as “Tales from the Borderlands“)

Thomas Hardy, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (1891)

Gillian Beer, “Darwin’s Plots” (1983; on “ghost plots”)

Thomas Hardy “Jude the Obscure” (1895)

Vera Brittain, “Testament of Youth” (although it is ostensibly about her youth in the Great War, it is very much a 1930’s book in its grimness, its pacifisim, its vision of an inevitable second Great War coming…)

It Happened One Night (auto-gyros bad, straight lines to use the shower, good…)

Philip Roth, Plot Against America (and this recent adaptation)

Philip K Dick “Man in the High Castle” (“a way of backlighting the 1930’s without actually looking very hard at them…”)

James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941, but far more successful when reissued in 1960)

Ursula Le Guin “The Earthsea Trilogy

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas

Dodie Smith, “I Capture the Castle“(1949)

Stella Gibbons, “Cold Comfort Farm” (1932)

Andrew Miller, “Lives Unled in Realist Fiction” ( 2007; on the optative and choice-function with fiction)

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming episodes: Our next BDT guest is Ben Fountain, author of the amazing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, now a (not-quite-so-amazing) Ang Lee film. Followed by a return to regular Recall This Book programming: Harvard historian Vince Brown joins us to discuss Caribbean modernity and his recent book, Tacky’s Revolt.

31 RTB Books in Dark Times 7: Vanessa Smith (JP)

U. Sydney professor Vanessa Smith–author of Intimate Strangers, and also of this lovely short piece about Marion Milner–joins John to discuss her pandemic reading. She praises a Milner (quasi)travel book, but she also makes the case for M F K Fisher and a book about the glories of hypochondria.

Tasmanian selfie: John, Vanessa, mysterious mathematician (r to l)

Then the old friends share their newfound love for spiky Australian novelist Helen Garner, doyenne of share-house feminism.

The indomitably introspective Marion Milner

Marion Milner, Eternity’s Sunrise (1987, at the age of 87)

Brian Dillon, “Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives

Lytton Strachey, “Eminent Victorians” (about Florence Nightingale’s hypochondria and agoraphobia)

Jane Austen takes on hypochondria in Emma (think of gruel-eating Mr. Woodhouse) and in Sanditon

M. F. K. Fisher, “How to Cook a Wolf

Helen Garner, “The Spare Room” (2008; rigorously honest about impending mortality)

Helen Garner, “The Childrens Bach” (1984; John and Vanessa planned a seminar on this one)

Helen Garner, “Monkey Grip” (1977; heroin, be the death of me….)

Listen to the episode here:

Read the Transcript here:

Upcoming Episodes: Next week, Paul Saint-Amour, Modernist to the stars (and the lucky students of U Penn) rhapsodizes about science fiction’s time travel metaphysics.

30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “challenge testing” a Covid vaccine

On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”

It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of  Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.

Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”

So, John sat down with Nir to discuss the idea of deliberately exposing healthy young volunteers to corona virus in order to accelerate the efficacy phase of vaccine testing. Prior to this pandemic, many felt challenge testing with a deadly disease was beyond the ethical pale. Eyal et. al propose that despite its checkered history (think coerced deadly medical procedures), there is an interesting philosophical case to be made in its favor.

Want to read more coverage of challenge testing? Start with this Washington Post article, or this one.

Listen to the episode here:

Read a transcript here:

Upcoming Episodes: Books in Dark Times returns next week with Australian scholar Vanessa Smith singing the praises of the uncategorizable Marion Milner–as well as one of John’s favorite novelists from Down Under. The following week, Modernist Paul Saint-Amour wins John’s heart by unpacking the metaphysics of time travel in such SF born-classics as Arrival, perhaps the most octopus/Heptapod-loving film of recent years.

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.

George Stewart, “Earth Abides

Mary Shelley, “The Last Man

M. P. Shiel, “The Purple Cloud

John Clute, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (on “fantastika”)

Frederick Turner, “Genesis” and “Apocalypse

Ursula Le Guin, “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia” (1974; KSR praises such works as this for “power of poetry alone”)

Darko Suvin, “Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre ” (1979; on cognitive estrangement)

The door dilated” a quote from Robert A. Heinlein in “Beyond This Horizon”

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming: We pivot briefly away from Books in Dark Times to discuss the ethics of deliberately exposing people to the novel corona virus. John discusses the moral quandaries around accelerated vaccine testing with Nir Eyal, a Rutgers bioethicist.

28 Books in Dark Times 5: Seeta Chaganti (JP)

Seeta Chaganti, medievalist extraordinaire (Strange Footing and The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary) joins John to discuss–wait for it–data visualization in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, philosopher, visionary and scholar. They go on to discuss past traditions that merge text and image in ways that foreshadow modern visualization practices, and close with beloved books that take readers “back of the tapestry” to reveal what everyday front-of-tapestry life keeps decorously hidden.

Seeta teaches at UC Davis (as a bantam owner, John has chicken envy)
Continue reading “28 Books in Dark Times 5: Seeta Chaganti (JP)”

27 RTB: Books in Dark Times 4 David and John Plotz

Aside from being John’s (younger, brighter, handsomer–and definitely hirsuter) brother, what has the inimitable David Plotz done lately? Only hosted “The Slate Political Gabfest“, written two books (“The Genius Factory” and “The Good Book“) and run the amazing travel website, Atlas Obscura.

panda bad, horse good: David Plotz feeds a new friend

So, what is he reading? The fully absorbing “other worlds” of Dickens and Mark Twain tempt David, but he goes another direction. He picks one book that shows humanity at its worst, heading towards world war. And another that shows how well we can behave towards one another (and even how happy we can be…) at “moments of super liquidity” when everything melts and can be rebuilt. He also guiltily admits a yen for Austen, Rowling, and Pullman–and gratuitously disses LOTR. John and David bond about their love for lonnnnnnng-form cultural history in tSo, what is he reading?he mold of Common Ground. Finally the brothers enthuse over their favorite book about Gettysburg, and reveal an embarrassing reenactment of the charge down Little Round Top.

Continue reading “27 RTB: Books in Dark Times 4 David and John Plotz”