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)”

14x Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)

In May, John and Pu interviewed SF superstar Cixin Liu (you will want to listen to that episode before this one). In August they entered the studio again to work on the final edits for that interview in both its Chinese and English versions. While they were there, they took some time to 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….
Continue reading “14x Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)”

14 In Focus: Cixin Liu (in English, with Pu Wang, JP)

In this episode, John and Brandeis professor Pu Wang talk with the bestselling science fiction author Cixin Liu.

Mr. Liu is the author of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End, and other works. When he visited Brandeis to receive an honorary degree, Liu paid a visit to the RTB lair to record this interview. He spoke in Chinese and Pu translated his remarks in this English version of the interview: if you would rather listen to the original Chinese conversation, you will find it on the RTB website and in your podcast stream (see 刘慈欣访谈中文版 Episode 14c).

Continue reading “14 In Focus: Cixin Liu (in English, with Pu Wang, JP)”

13 Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson

John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson, author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a book that both tells a part of the history of Polynesia, and tells how histories of Polynesia are constructed.

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Tupaia’s map

The discussion also ranges to consider different moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the Hokule’a‘s triumphant reconstuction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding, in which the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium (below) served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.

Continue reading “13 Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson”

12 RTB Presents “The Electro–Library” (with Jared Green)

In this warm summer episode, Elizabeth and John present a marvelous podcast, The Electro-Library, and they speak with one of its hosts and founders, Jared Green.

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Elizabeth, Jared and John play snippets from a recent Electro-Library episode on the decidedly non-podcasty topic of photographs, and use it as a  springboard to discuss the different aesthetic experiences of radio, television, film, reading, audiobooks, and podcasts. Which are the easiest and which the hardest artworks to get lost in? Would Frankenstein’s monster be more popular as a podcaster than as a YouTuber? (The answer to that one seems most likely to be yes). Continue reading “12 RTB Presents “The Electro–Library” (with Jared Green)”

11 Xenophobia and Ethno-Nationalism, 1973 to today (Quinn Slobodian)

What’s the relationship between immigration, globalization and demographics? What do a badly characterized, racist novel and an imaginatively metaphoric biology article from the 1970s have to do with that? And what is woke particularism? John and Elizabeth find out all of that and more in this discussion with Quinn Slobodian, professor of history at Wellesley College and author, most recently, of Globalists:  The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

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They first discuss Jean Raspail‘s racist 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, a book whose popularity in certain quarters since its publication might explain how Europe has gone from Thatcher to Brexit, from Vaclav Havel to Viktor Orban.  How is this xenophobic screed related to science fiction of the same period–and to John Locke? Pat Buchanan,  American early adapter of Raspail’s hate-mongering, figures prominently. Continue reading “11 Xenophobia and Ethno-Nationalism, 1973 to today (Quinn Slobodian)”

10 Life, Writing, and Life Writing with Helena DeBres

Bonus!  Available only on our website,  Episode 10X includes a brief RTB discussion  about Exit Zero, a stunning “auto-ethnography” that raises fascinating questions about what it means when people retell stories or anecdotes about their own lives as a form of evidence that helps explain their overall worldview.

Update: For more on autofiction, check out this essay on Ben Lerner by William Egginton from our partners at Public Books.

How does the past live on within our experience of the present? And how does our decision to speak about or write down our recollections of how things were change our understanding of those memories–how does it change us in the present? Asking those questions brings RTB into the company of memory-obsessed writers like Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. But it also takes up into the modern phenomenon of “autofiction,” a term which, if you’ve never heard of before today, you’re in good company! But by discussing autofiction writers like Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard, we begin to understand that the line between real-life fact, memory, and fiction is not quite as sharp as we had thought. Continue reading “10 Life, Writing, and Life Writing with Helena DeBres”

9 Women in Political Power; with Manduhai Buyandelger

 

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Evita, Thatcher and HRC walk into a glass ceiling…In this episode, John and Elizabeth are joined by MIT anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger to discuss women in political power in Argentina, Mongolia, the UK, the United States and beyond.  At the conversation’s heart: Manduhai analyzes  the legacy  of “female quotas”  in Soviet-era politics, as well as the narrow “lanes” that women politicians are sorted into.

For starters, Elizabeth discusses Santa Evita, Tomás Eloy Martínez’s riff on what happened to Evita Perón’s body before and after her death, and how much she looked, eventually, like Grace Kelly. Continue reading “9 Women in Political Power; with Manduhai Buyandelger”

8 Distraction, a Conversation (Marina Van Zuylen and John Plotz at Harvard’s Mahindra Center)

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We frequently worry that we live in a “distracted age.” But perhaps the human condition is always to live “almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite another” (Ford Madox Ford, “On Impressionism”). Join John’s conversation with Marina Van Zuylen of Bard College.

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Van Zuylen, the author of The Plenitude of Distraction, makes the case that some aspects of distraction that are far more positive than they initially appear. Kierkegaard’s image of saving yourself from a boring philosophy lecture by watching sweat trickle down the speaker’s face is one highlight; her story about her real-life brain scan is another. Continue reading “8 Distraction, a Conversation (Marina Van Zuylen and John Plotz at Harvard’s Mahindra Center)”

7 In Focus: Samuel Delany in conversation with John Plotz (Nevèrÿon, Triton, Gertrude Stein and more….)

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On August 6, 2019, an article based on this podcast interview appeared in our partner publication, Public Books. 

Fresh on the heels of our conversation with Madeline Miller, author of Circe,  John Plotz has a talk with Samuel Delany, living legend of science fiction and fantasy. You probably know him best for breakthrough novels like Dhalgren and Trouble on Triton, which went beyond “New Wave” SF to introduce an intense and utterly idiosyncratic form of theory-rich and avant-garde stylistics to the genre.  Reading him means leaving Earth, but also returning to the heady days when Greenwich Village was as caught up in the arrival of Levi-Strauss and Derrida to America as it was in a gender and sexuality revolution. Continue reading “7 In Focus: Samuel Delany in conversation with John Plotz (Nevèrÿon, Triton, Gertrude Stein and more….)”

6 Writing Then and Now: Martin Puchner (The Written World)

From its origins in clay tablets to its future on digital tablets, Martin Puchner has thought about writing in all its forms. In this episode, John and Elizabeth talk to Martin, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard. They begin with a discussion of a very early writerly text–the epic of Gilgamesh, a version of which has been Englished by Elizabeth’s father. They 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. Are we on the cusp of a new transformation in the way in which writing occurs in the world?

M0005812 Sumerian Cuneifurm Tablet.

This transformation might have to do with coding, with the resurrection of the tablet and the scroll, or with the culture of curation that has arisen in a new era in which the ability. to write has been (significantly) democratized. Continue reading “6 Writing Then and Now: Martin Puchner (The Written World)”

5 The Comic Novel with Stephen McCauley

On this episode of Recall This Book, John talks to Stephen McCauley, a novelist and Professor of the Practice of English and Co-director of Creative Writing at Brandeis. Nobody knows more about the comic novel than Steve, and there is no comic novelist he loves better than Barbara Pym, a mid-century British comic genius who found herself forgotten and unpublishable in middle age, only to roar back into print in her sixties. Steve and John’s friendship over the years has been sealed by the favorite Pym lines they text back and forth to one another, so they are particularly keen to investigate why her career went in this way. Continue reading “5 The Comic Novel with Stephen McCauley”

4 In Focus: An Interview with Madeline Miller about Circe (JP, GT)

On June 6, 2019, an article based on this podcast appeared in our partner publication, Public Books. 

In this episode, John and Gina Turrigiano 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. Then, in Recallable Books, Madeline recommends I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde and The Two Noble Kinsmen by Shakespeare. Continue reading “4 In Focus: An Interview with Madeline Miller about Circe (JP, GT)”

3 Old and New Media with Lisa Gitelman

In this episode, John and Elizabeth speak with Lisa Gitelman, a professor in the departments of English and Media, Culture and Communications at New York University. They discuss Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) and Rudyard Kipling’s “Wireless” (1902). Both works examine shifts in media technologies that people had only just gotten used to: what can Benjamin’s essay and Kipling’s uneasy story teach us about contemporary economic shifts to blockchain, or from artistic transmission to social media interactions? We investigate brain metaphors and their aesthetic implications, whether and how Benjamin is optimistic, (and another thing). Then in our segment Recallable Books, Lisa recommends “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original Through its Facsimiles” by Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, Elizabeth recommends “Mobile Phones and Mipoho’s Prophecy,” by Janet McIntosh and John thinks about recommending Henry James’s “In the Cage” but instead recommends “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Continue reading “3 Old and New Media with Lisa Gitelman”

2 Addiction with Gina Turrigiano

In this episode, John and Elizabeth speak with Gina Turrigiano, a neuroscientist at Brandeis, about a number of different facets of addiction. What makes an addiction to a morning constitutional different from–or similar to–an addiction to Fentanyl? What are the biological and social factors to consider? Should the addict be thought of in binary terms, or addiction as a state that people move into and out of? They contemplate these questions through biological, anthropological, and literary lenses, drawing on Marc Lewis, Angela Garcia, and Thomas de Quincey. Late in the episode, there’s also a Sprockets joke. Then, in Recallable Books, Gina recommends David Linden’s The Compass of Pleasure, Elizabeth recommends When I Wear My Alligator Boots by Shaylih Muehlmann, and John recommends Sam Quinones’s Dreamland. Continue reading “2 Addiction with Gina Turrigiano”

1 Minimalism with Tory Fair

In this episode, John and Elizabeth speak with Tory Fair, sculptor and professor in the Art Department at Brandeis about minimalism. They discuss the difference in involvement expected from the viewer of a minimalist work and other work, and compare modes of minimalism, from Donald Judd to Samuel Beckett to Marie Kondo. Their discussion of the correct amount of guidance to expect or to want from an artist also turns to a lively chat on the experience of going to the museum, and whether that is best approached as directed by the artist or curator, or as a search for an unexpected occurrence. Then in Recallable Art, Tory recommends the Daybook Installation at DIA by Anne Truitt, and John recommends Aesop’s fables. Continue reading “1 Minimalism with Tory Fair”