Posts by Edward Champion

Edward Champion is the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits.
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The Contours of American History (Modern Library Nonfiction #94)

(This is the seventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Promise of American Life.)

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History is never the thrilling Zapcat powerboat ride it can and should be when we remain committed to oaring through the same exhausted legends about American exceptionalism and bogus democratic promise. Much as we may find new insights into human existence by tilting our canoes to the ripples contained within a storyteller’s cadences, so too may we discover more complete ways of contending with our historical contradictions through the viewpoint of a responsible revisionist armed with the facts and rejecting the hard establishment line.

The revisionist historian, that charming and sometimes infuriating rabble-rouser never to be confused with some creepy Holocaust denier flailing in a sea of empty Cheetos bags and crackpot pamphlets, often gets needlessly maligned in America. Before Annette Gordon-Reed offered conclusive evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (upheld by a 1998 DNA test), Fawn Brodie was attacked by vanilla-minded legacy holders two decades before for pushing beyond James Callender’s tawdry trolling, daring to suggest that there was good reason to believe that our much heralded champion of the rights of man had skeletons in his closet that were vital to understanding his philosophy. Brodie’s book, despite its psychobiographical failings, led to a reckoning with our myths and assumptions about the Sage of Monticello, one that continues to this very day with college students demanding the removal of Jefferson statues on campuses.

Provided that their efforts do not involve going out of their way to Bowlderize troubling if incontrovertible parts of the story and the results are as expansive and as rigorous as their more timorous mainstream counterparts, revisionists are often vital reconcilers of the public record. It is the facile propagandist who ignores Rosa Parks’s radicalism to paint a roseate image of a meek and tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus (“small,” “delicate,” and “little,” as belittled by Bill Clinton in 2005) or who upholds the lie that Abner Doubleday created baseball.

In recent decades, many young students have ardently clutched their copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States with the taut adamantine grip of a Fallout 4 junkie reluctant to capitulate her controller. Zinn’s thoughtful volume has been vehemently denounced by some establishment historians who have questioned the perceived polemical emphasis of class conflict at the expense of other issues. But before Zinn, there was William Appleman Williams, a brash energetic troublemaker who was arguably a more rigorous scholar than Zinn and who was among the best and the boldest of the firebrand 20th century historians who emerged from a Charles Beard afterglow with ass to kick once the bubble gum supply ran out.

William Appleman Williams unpacked the economic motivations of American expansion and foreign policy in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and broadened this scholarship further with The Contours of American History, a punchy volume examining how imperialism and liberalism became a sordid double stitch intertwined in the American quilt well before the Sons of Liberty spilled massive chests of desperately offloaded tea into Boston Habor. Yet Williams’s often nimble analysis, riddled as it sometimes is with conceptual overreach, robustly articulates the ever-changing and contradictory American Weltanschauung that has motivated nearly every governmental decision since. He documents a worldview that started off with the relatively benign goal of creating and sustaining an economic nation that provided for everyone, but devolved under the autocratic yoke of Jacksonian democracy and Gilded Age greed to the corporate capitalist nightmare we are all trying to awake from today. And because Williams’s challenge to the so-called “American experiment” was so unprecedented in the mid-20th century, this historian was tarnished, besmirched, and condemned by other putative progressives who might have enlarged their rigid notions of national identity if they had been more willing to dive into the subtle words and actions directing the unshakable financial impetus.

Williams was harassed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, that despicably despotic body that ruined the lives of so many, with a demand to produce the unfinished Contours manuscript. The HUAC would order Williams to testify in Washington and then cancel the appearance by telegram once he’d hopped on a train to the Beltway. Even after he testified for ten minutes and the HUAC abandoned its witch hunt, the IRS harassed him in various forms for nearly twenty years. Williams was hounded by the neoliberalism critic Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., who dutifully condemned Williams as “pro-communist” to the American Historical Association’s president. Even as late as 2009, an academic called Williams an “idiot” before a Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations panel, decrying Williams’s approach to history as a crude retooling of Charles Beard’s infamous assault upon our Founding Fathers’s pecuniary predispositions.1

But Williams was far from a typical progressive. He was a registered Republican when he first came to Wisconsin. He voted for Nixon as the lesser evil in 1960. And even in Contours, he defended Herbert Hoover’s hands-off Depression era policies, seeing this as a necessary tactic to forestall property holders from creating a business-friendly fascism that could have had a more diabolical effect on our clime than the many Hoovervilles that had mushroomed across the nation. Williams argued that Hoover’s perceived failure to do anything represented a more active resistance against special interests than the Progressive Movement was willing to acknowledge or act upon at the time. And that’s the way this jazz-loving Midwestern historian rolled. As Williams was to write in a 1973 essay, the revisionist’s duty was to “see basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships. He is a sister and a brother to those who use old steel to make a zipper, as contrasted with those who add new elements to make a better steel.”

In my previous Modern Library essay, I castigated Herbert Croly for the historical developments that he could not see ahead of him, for erring too much in his perfervid belief in a central government and for diminishing the justifiable grievances of protesters. William Appleman Williams may very well represent the opposite problem: a historian who could see the implications of any action all too well, one who was willing to articulate any interpretation of the facts even if it meant being alienated by the jingoistic minds who needed to reconsider the other fateful historical trajectories upholding the status quo.

Williams’s highly specific examples very much allow him to sell us on his interpretation. In Tragedy, for example, Williams’s deductive prowess is in high gear when he examines how Woodrow Wilson’s March 1913 decision to refuse a government loan to China, one long coveted by American industrialists at the time (and later attempted privately), actually fell within the framework of the Open Door Policy. Many historians have interpreted Wilson’s pushback as a betrayal of American expansionism at the time, but Williams points to the lack of private capital available to fulfill the job as well as the possibility that any governmental loan, even one secured with the help of other financiers, may have been perceived as a very clear threat to neighboring Japan. The Open Door Policy, for all of its flaws and its needless sullying of China, was intended to provide a peacefully imperialist framework for a burgeoning American empire: a GATT or IMF before its time, though regrettably without much in the way of homegrown protest. (Rebellion would come later in Beijing with the May Fourth movement.) The ostensible goal was to strengthen China with fresh influxes of low-risk private capital so that it could withstand troublesome neighbors looking for a fight, even as the new obligations to American entrepreneurs forged hot rivulets of cash rolling back to the imperialist homeland. Wilson’s decision was, as discerned by Williams, a canny chesslike stratagem to avoid war and conflict, one that would keep China a servant to America’s riches. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this useful historical interpretation reveals Wilson to be a pioneer in the kind of venal and now all too commonplace globalization that morally bankrupt neoliberals like Thomas Friedman have no problem opening their old steel zippers for. Their free trade fantasies possess all the out-of-sight, out-of-mind justification of a revenge porn junkie ignoring another person’s real world humiliation for fleeting sociopathic pleasure.

It was with Contours that Williams blew the lid off the great American lie, exposing the American liberal’s failure to confront his own implication in much of the lasseiz nous faire madness. Williams traced the origins of our mercantilist approach to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the 17th century, Shaftesbury was a political figure who opposed harsh penalties and absolutist government. He stood up for the nonconformists and called for regular parliaments, and would go on to found and lead the early Whig party in the wake of the British Exclusion Crisis. While traveling to Oxford to remove an abscess from his liver, he hit it off with a young doctor by the name of John Locke. (There weren’t as many cafes back then as there are today. In the 1600s, you had to take whatever mingling opportunities you could get.) Locke, of course, would later have many ideas about the social contract, a scheme about inalienable natural rights that would eventually find its way into a number one ditty penned by Jefferson that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.

But there was a twist to this tale. As Williams points out, Locke’s ideas were a corruption of Shaftesbury’s more inclusive and democratic efforts. Where Shaftesbury was willing to rebel against the King to ensure that courts and alternative political parties were in place to prevent the government from becoming an absolute tyranny, even going to the trouble of building a coalition that extended across all classes to fight for these safeguards when not putting together the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, it was Locke who limited Shaftesbury’s remarkably liberal contributions by undercutting individual rights. Locke believed that those who owned property were perfectly justified in protesting their government, for they were the ones who had entered into a social contract. But the rabble who didn’t own property could more or less buzz off.2 As Williams put it, “[I]ndividualism was a right and a liberty reserved to those who accepted a status quo defined by a certain set of natural truths agreed upon a majority. Within such a framework, and it is a far narrower set of limits than it appears at first glance, the natural laws of property and labor were deemed sufficient to guide men’s pursuit of happiness.”

Yet those who subscribed to these early mercantilist standards believed that this classically liberal idea of “corporate structure” involved a basic responsibility to provide for everyone. And the way of sustaining such a benevolent national juggernaut was through the establishment of an empire: a Pax Americana predicated upon the promise of a democracy promulgated by patriarchs who not so quietly believed that the people were incapable of it.3 Williams observes how the Quakers in Philadelphia, who opposed expansion and much of the onslaughts against Native Americans, were very much committed to noblesse oblige, setting up hospitals, education, and philanthropic endeavors to take care of everyone. But this generous spirit was no match for the free trade nabobs or the hard-hearted Calvinists who increasingly shifted such solicitude to the propertied class (one can easily imagine Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glenn Ross “Always be closing” speech spouted by a Calvinist), leading the great theologian Jonathan Edwards to offer righteous pushback against “fraud and trickishness in trade.”

Against this backdrop, post-Revolutionary expansion and the Monroe Doctrine allowed mercantilism to transmute into an idea that was more about the grab than the munificent results, with visions of empire dancing in many heads. By the time Frederick Jackson Turner tendered his Frontier Thesis in 1893, mercantilism was no longer about providing for the commonweal, but about any “self-made man” looking out after his interests. Williams points to Chief Justice John Marshall’s efforts to enforce safeguards, such as his Gibbons vs. Ogden decision regulating interstate commerce, against the monopolies that would come to dominate America near the turn of the century. Marshall’s immediate successor, Chief Justice Taney, expanded the flexibility of the Constitution’s Contract Clause with his 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge decision, permitting states to alter any contract as it saw fit. While Taney’s decision seemed to strike the death knell against monopolies, it was no match against the consolidated trusts that were to come with the railroads and the robber barons. Rather curiously, for all of his sharp observations about free trade and expansionist dangers during this time, Williams devotes little more than a paragraph to the 1836 closing of the Second Bank of the United States:

[Nicholas Biddle] did a better job than the directors of the Bank of England. Under his leadership the bank not only established a national system of credit balancing which assisted the west as much as the east, and probably more, but sought with considerable success to save smaller banks from their own inexperience and greed. It was ultimately his undoing, for what the militant advocates of lasseiz nous faire came to demand was help without responsibilities. In their minds, at any rate, that was the working definition of democratic freedom.

Talk about sweeping one of the greatest financial calamities in American history under the rug! I don’t want to get too much into Andrew Jackson, who I believe to be nothing less than an abhorrent, reckless, and self-destructive maniac who claimed “liberalism” using the iron fist of tyranny, in this installment. I shall preserve my apparently unquenchable ire for Old Hickory when I tackle Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson in a few years (Modern Library Nonfiction #36). But Jackson’s imperious and irresponsible battle with Biddle, complete with his Specie Circular, undoubtedly led to the Panic of 1837, in which interest rates spiked, the rich got richer, a fixable financial mess spiraled out of control and became needlessly dangerous, and buyers could not come up with the hard cash to invest in land. Considering Williams’s defense of Hoover in both Contours and Tragedy, it is extremely curious that he would shy away from analyzing why some form of central bank might be necessary to mitigate against volatility, even though he adopted some fascinating counterpoints to the “too big to fail” theory decades before Bernanke and Krugman.

This oversight points to the biggest issue I have with Williams. His solution to the great imperialist predicament was democratic socialism, which he called “the only real frontier available to Americans in the second half of the 20th century.” While this is a clever way of inverting Turner’s thesis, to uphold this, Williams cites a few examples such as the courage of Wendell Phillips, a few throwaway references to social property, and a late 19th century return with Edward Bellamy and Henry Demarest Lloyd to the Quaker-like notion of “a commonwealth in which men were brothers first and economic men second.” But while Williams is often a master of synthesis, he falls somewhat short in delineating how his many historical examples can aid us to correct our ongoing ills. If the American Weltanschauung is so steeped in our culture, how then can democratic socialism uproot it? This vital question remains at the root of any progressive-minded conversation. But now that we have a presidential race in which socialism is no longer a dirty word and the two leading Democratic candidates bicker over who is the greater progressive, perhaps the answer might arrive as naturally as Williams anticipated.

Next Up: Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition!

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The Promise of American Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #95)

(This is the sixth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: In Cold Blood.)

mlnf95Before The New Republic devolved under Chris Hughes into a half-worthy husk of knee-jerk platitudes just a few histrionic clickbait headlines shy of wily Slate reductionism, it was a formidable liberal magazine for many decades, courageous enough to take real stands while sustaining vital dialogue about how and when government should intercede in important affairs. The source of this philosophical thrust, as duly documented by Franklin Foer, was the greatly diffident son of a prominent newspaperman, an unlikely progenitor who entered and exited Harvard many times without ever finishing, someone who suffered from severe depression and who, for a time, didn’t know what to do with his life other than play bridge and tennis and write about obscure architecture. But Croly found it in him to spill his views about democracy’s potential, what he called the “New Nationalism,” into a 1909 book called The Promise of American Life, which served as something of a manifesto for the early 20th century Progressives and became a cult hit among political wonks at the time. It partially inspired Theodore Roosevelt, who was proudly name-checked by Croly as “a Hamiltonian with a difference,” to initiate his ill-fated 1912 Bull Moose campaign as an outsider presidential candidate. (Historians have argued over the palpable influence of Croly’s book on Roosevelt, but it’s possible that, had not Croly confirmed what Roosevelt had already been thinking about, Roosevelt may not have entered the 1912 race as ardently as he did. With a more united Republican coalition against Wilson, America may very well have carried on with a second Taft term, with an altogether different involvement in World War I. Taft’s notable rulings as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which included extending executive power and broadening the scope of police evidence, may not been carried out in the 1920s. A book is often more of a Molotov shattering upon history’s turf than we are willing to accept.)

Croly’s book touched a nerve among a small passionate group. One couple ended up reading Croly’s book aloud to each other during their honeymoon (leaving this 21st century reader, comparing Croly’s thick “irremediable”-heavy prose style against now all too common sybaritic options, to imagine other important activities that this nubile pair may have missed out on). The newly married couple was Willard Straight and Dorothy Whitney. They had money. They invited Croly to lunch. The New Republic was formed.

So we are contending with a book that not only created an enduring magazine and possibly altered the course of American history, but one that had a profound impact on the right elite at the right time. So it was a tremendous surprise to discover a book that greatly infuriated me during the two times I read it, at one time causing me to hurl it with high indignant velocity against a wall, for reasons that have more to do with this gushing early 20th century idealist failing to foresee the rise of Nazism, the despicable marriage of racism and police brutality, growing income inequality, corporate oligarchy, draconian Common Core educational standards, and dangerous demagogues like George Wallace and Donald Trump.

But it is also important to remember that Croly wrote this book before radio, television, the Internet, women’s suffrage, two world wars, the Great Depression, smartphones, outrage culture, and 9/11. And it is never a good idea to read an older book, especially one of a political nature, without considering the time that it was written. I did my best to curb my instincts to loathe Croly for what he could not anticipate, for his larger questions of how power aligns itself with the democratic will of the people are still very much worth considering. Croly is quite right to identify the strange Frankenstein monster of Alexander Hamilton’s pragmatic central government and Thomas Jefferson’s rights of man — the uniquely American philosophical conflict that has been the basis of nearly every national conflict and problem that has followed — as a “double perversion” of our nation’s potential, even if Croly seems unwilling to consider that some “perversions” are necessary for an evolving democratic republic and he is often too trusting of executive authority and the general public’s obeisance to it. That these inquiries still remain irreconcilable (and are perverted blunter still by crass politicians who bellow about how to “make America great again” as they eject those who challenge them from the room) some 107 years after the book’s publication speaks to both the necessity and the difficulty of the question.

I’ve juxtaposed Croly’s meek-looking law clerk mien against George Bellows’s famous boxing painting (unveiled two years before Croly’s book) because there really is no better way to visualize the American individual’s relationship to its lumbering, venal, and often futile government. Croly’s solution is to call for all Americans to be actively engaged in a collaborative and faithful relationship with the nation: “to accept a conception of democracy which provides for the substantial integrity of his country, not only as a nation with an exclusively democratic mission, but as a democracy with an essentially national career.” On its face, this seems like a reasonable proposition. We all wish to belong in a democracy, to maintain fidelity to our country, and to believe that the Lockean social contract in which the state provides for the commonweal is a workable and reasonable quid pro quo. But it is also the kind of orgiastic meat and potatoes mantra that led both Kennedy and Reagan to evoke mythical American exceptionalism with the infamous “shining city upon a hill” metaphor. Dulcet words may make us feel better about ourselves and our nation, but we have seen again and again how government inaction on guns and a minimum wage that does not reflect contemporary living standards demands a Black Lives Matter movement and a “fight for $15.” And when one begins to unpack just what Croly wants us to give up for this roseate and wholly unrealistic Faustian bargain, we begin to see someone who may be more of a thoughtful and naive grandstander than a vital conceptual pragmatist.

Croly is right to demand that America operate with a larger administrative organ in place, some highly efficient Hamiltonian body that mitigates against “the evil effects of a loose union.” He smartly points out that such evils as slavery resulted from the American contradictions originating in the strange alliance between our poetic Jeffersonian call for Constitutional democracy and individualistic will and the many strains of populism and nationalism that followed. In his insistence on “the transformation of Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle,” Croly is suspicious of reformers, many of which he singles out in a manner strikingly similar to Norman Mailer’s “Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” He calls William Jennings Bryan an “ill conceived” reformer, claims the now nearly forgotten William Travers Jerome to be “lulled into repose” by traditional Jeffersonian democracy (never mind Jerome’s successful crusades against Tammany Hall corruption, regrettably overshadowed by his prosecution of Harry K. Thaw during the Stanford White murder trial), interestingly pegs William Randolph Hearst as someone motivated by endless “proclaimation[s] of a rigorous interpretation of the principle of equal rights,” and holds up Teddy Roosevelt as “more novel and more radical” in his calls for a Square Deal than “he himself has probably proclaimed.”

But Croly’s position on reform is quite problematic, deeply unsettling, and often contradictory. He believes that citizens “should be permitted every opportunity to protest in the most vigorous and persistent manner,” yet he states that such protests “must conform to certain conditions” enforced by the state. While we are certainly far removed from the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building that galvanized the labor movement, as we saw with the appalling free speech cages during the 2004 Republican Convention, muzzling protesters not only attenuated their message but allowed the NYPD to set up traps for the activists, which ensured their arrest and detention — a prototype for the exorbitant enforcement used to diminish and belittle the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years later. Croly believes that the job of sustaining democratic promise should, oddly enough, be left to legislators and executives granted all the power required and sees state and municipal governments as largely unsuccessful:

The interest of individual liberty in relation to the organization of democracy demands simply that the individual officeholder should possess an amount of power and independence adequate to the efficient performance of his work. The work of a justice of the Supreme Court demands a power that is absolute for its own special work, and it demands technically complete independence. An executive should, as a rule, serve for a longer term, and hold a position of greater independence than a legislator, because his work of enforcing the laws and attending to the business details of government demands continuity, complete responsibility within its own sphere, and the necessity occasionally of braving adverse currents of public opinion. The term of service and the technical independence of a legislator might well be more restricted than that of an executive; but even a legislator should be granted as much power and independence as he may need for the official performance of his public duty. The American democracy has shown its enmity to individual political liberty, not because it has required its political favorites constantly to seek reëlection, but because it has since 1800 tended to refuse to its favorites during their official term as much power and independence as is needed for administrative, legislative, and judicial efficiency. It has been jealous of the power it delegated, and has tried to take away with one hand what it gave with the other.

There is no room for “Act locally, think globally” in Croly’s vision. This is especially ungenerous given the many successful progressive movements that flourished decades after Croly’s death, such as the civil rights movement beginning with local sit-ins and developing into a more cogent and less ragged strain of the destructive Jacksonian populism that Croly rightly calls out, especially in relation to the cavalier obliteration of the Second Bank of the United States and the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which required Henry Clay to clean up Jackson’s despotic absolutism with a compromise. On the Nullification point, Croly identifies Daniel Webster, a man who became treacherously committed to holding the Union together, as “the most eloquent and effective expositor of American nationalism,” who “taught American public opinion to consider the Union as the core and crown of the American political system,” even as he offers a beautifully stinging barb on Webster’s abolitionist betrayal with the 1850 speech endorsing the Fugitive Slave Act: “He was as much terrorized by the possible consequences of any candid and courageous dealing with the question as were the prosperous business men of the North; and his luminous intelligence shed no light upon a question, which evaded his Constitutional theories, terrified his will, and clouded the radiance of his patriotic visions.”

But Croly also promulgates a number of loopy schemes, including making representative legislatures at any level beholden to an executive who is armed with a near tyrannical ability to scuttle laws, even as he claims that voters removing representatives through referendum “will obtain and keep a much more complete and direct control over the making of their laws than that which they have exerted hitherto; and the possible desirability of the direct exercise of this function cannot be disputed by any loyal democrat.” Well, this loyal democrat, immediately summoning Lord Acton’s famous quote, calls bullshit on giving any two-bit boss that kind of absolute power. Because Croly’s baffling notion of “democracy” conjures up the terrifying image of a sea of hands raised in a Bellamy salute. On one hand, Croly believes that a democracy must secure and exercise individual rights, even as he rightly recognizes that, when people exercise these rights, they cultivate the “tendency to divide the community into divergent classes.” On the other hand, he believes that individuals should be kept on a restrictive leash:

[T]hey should not, so far as possible, be allowed to outlast their own utility. They must continue to be earned. It is power and opportunity enjoyed without being earned which help to damage the individual — both the individuals who benefit and the individuals who consent — and which tend to loosen the ultimate social bond. A democracy, no less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognize political, economic, and social discriminations, but it must also manage to withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance. The essential wholeness of the community depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement.

There’s certainly something to be said about how many Americans fail to appreciate the rights that they have. Reminding all citizens of their duties to flex their individual rights may be a very sound idea. (Perhaps one solution to American indifference and political disillusion is the implementation of a compulsory voting policy with penalties, similar to what goes on in Australia.) But with such a middling door prize like this handed out at the democratic dance party, why on earth would any individual want to subscribe to the American promise? Aristocrats, by their very nature, wish to hold onto their power and privilege and not let go. Croly’s pact is thus equally unappealing for the struggling individual living paycheck to paycheck, the career politician, or the business tycoon.

Moreover, in addition to opposing the Sherman Antitrust Act, Croly nearly succumbs to total Taylorism in his dismissal of labor unions: “They seek by the passage of eight-hour and prevailing rate-of-wages laws to give an official sanction to the claims of the unions, and they do so without making any attempt to promote the parallel public interest in an increasing efficiency of labor. But these eight-hour and other similar laws are frequently being declared unconstitutional by the state courts, and for the supposed benefit of individual liberty.” Granted, Croly’s words came ten years before the passage of the Adamson Act, the first federal law enforcing a mandatory eight-hour day. But Croly’s failure to see the social benefits of well-rested workers better positioned to exercise their individual liberty for a democratic promise is one of his more outrageous and myopic pronouncements, even as he also avers how the conditions that create unrestricted economic opportunities also spawn individual bondage. But if Croly wants Americans to “[keep] his flag flying at any personal cost or sacrifice,” then he really needs to have more sympathy for the travails of the working stiff.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe some 21st century thinker should pick up from Croly’s many points and make an equally ambitious attempt to harmonize Hamilton and Jefferson with more recent developments. American politics has transformed into a cartoonish nightmare from which we cannot seem to escape, one that causes tax absolutist lunatics like Grover Norquist to appear remotely sane. That we are seeing a strange replay of the 1912 election with the 2016 presidential race, with Trump stepping in as an unlikely Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders possibly filling in for Eugene Debs, and that so many Americans covet an “outsider” candidate who will fix a government that they perceive as a broken system speaks to a great need for some ambitious mind to reassess our history and the manner in which we belong to our nation, while also observing the many ways in which Americans come together well outside of the political bear trap. For the American individual is no longer boxing George Bellows-style with her government. She is now engaged in a vicious MMA match unfurling inside a steel cage. Whether this ugly pugilism can be tempered with peace and tolerance is anyone’s guess, but, if we really believe in democracy, the least we can do is try to find some workaround in which people feel once again that they’re part of the process.

Next Up: William Appleman Williams’s The Contours of American History!

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The Mark Twain Special (The Bat Segundo Show #552)

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This special program devoted to Mark Twain features an interview with editor Benjamin Griffin, who is part of the Mark Twain Project and discusses Twain’s legacy and his work on the three volume Autobiography published by UC Press, a conversation with historian Ben Tarnoff (The Bohemians), and a discussion with filmmaker Adam Nee and actor Kyle Gallner about Band of Robbers, the Nee Brothers’s very loose adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other Twain writings.

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Music used in this program is licensed through Creative Commons and includes the following:

Lost Radio, “Mnemonic Presence”
The Raymon Lazer Trio, “Lola”
Kevin MacLeod, “Dances and Dames”
Sakee Sed, “Mrs. Tennessee”
Adrianna Krikl, “Say Goodbye”

The Bat Segundo Show #552: The Mark Twain Special (Download MP3)

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David Bowie, Rock and Roll Chameleon Genius

He had crisp blue eyes, both of a slightly different hue after a childhood friend pierced one pupil with a fingernail during a fight, that could seduce any camera or crowd. He strutted all stages with a fierce lean mien under several forms and identities. His deep, cigarette-honed, intoxicating voice crooned during a tune before cracking unexpectedly into an otherworldly wail suggesting pain and playfulness that he kept from the public. He was a rock and roll legend and, like all good icons, he lived a sybaritic existence at times. Yet his musical accomplishments are worthy of our reverence and our accolades. For he worked more genres (glam rock, funk, folk, electronic, ambient, noise pop) in one lifetime than most artists can summon in a few years. And because his hold upon music and culture was so indomitable and without coeval, it seemed like he would live forever.

But David Bowie was mortal like the rest of us. Bowie, born David Robert Jones, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album Blackstar. And the cultural landscape as we now know it, a cesspool of risk-averse careerism and lassitude and the foppish pursuit of social media likes and followers, now has a hole that is about the size of the 181 mile crater near the lunar south pole: one that will take more creative energy and several distinct unparalleled visions to fill.

One listens to Bowie’s early pre-Ziggy Stardust albums — the cautionary “Quicksand” and the playful “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory, the many explorations of insanity in The Man Who Sold the World — seeing Bowie’s formidable cognizance of the world’s many traps and contradictions (he made several attempts to adapt Orwell’s 1984) and a sui generis talent who quickly surveyed the land and decided very fast to play the game entirely on his own terms. And then there are the later tracks — the gender-bending pre-grunge “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger, “Rebel Rebel”‘s incredible guitar lick on Diamond Dogs (his most covered track), the groovy “Stay” from Station to Station (to say nothing of the delightful “TVC15” from that same album) — that showed Bowie’s incredible ability to stay ahead of even his savviest audiences. Career reinvention was very much Bowie’s career. And he understood this well before MTV latched its image-conscious talons into the music world. But this often came close to engulfing him.

Bowie’s post-glam performance as Labyrinth‘s Jared the Goblin King had a tremendous impact on YA authors and will undoubtedly be cited as a shining exemplar of his influence, but this admirable pillar seems woefully insufficient considered against the edgier and more iconoclastic personae that Bowie donned during the 1970s. He took on identities like a man who could never have a large enough wardrobe. Like Miles Davis, Bowie’s commitment to his alter egos was austerely physical and often took a very personal toll, as can been in the above 1974 interview with Dick Cavett, with a sullen, sniffing (all the coke) Bowie poking the carpet with an outsize cane. During the mid-1970s, Bowie lived on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk to sustain his Thin White Duke persona, who was a gelid and joyless man who wasn’t terribly pleasant to be around. The character was starkly Nietschean and often supported fascism, which matched Bowie’s return to Europe during the Station to Station years.

The albums stayed groundbreaking up to 1980’s Scary Monsters, which arrived with an innovative music video for “Ashes to Ashes” (seen above) that caused J.G. Ballard to remark how it was “like an extract from a surrealist movie.” But three years later, Bowie decided to cash in with a $17.5 million contract with EMI. He turned to Nile Rodgers instead of longtime producer Tony Visconti for a new album that signaled a more mainstream direction. Let’s Dance offered a respectable title single, one now relentlessly overplayed and one that cannot possibly sum up David Bowie at all, that gave the radio stations something relatively inoffensive to play (all of the lively work coming before that wasn’t “Changes” or “The Golden Years” seemed to be ignored by most DJs), but Bowie’s move towards lucre caused a severe damage to his long-standing relationship with Visconti (although the two would work together again on 2002’s Heathen).

Yet even Bowie’s shift to the mainstream couldn’t hinder the ever fertile Bowie from trying out experiments like 1997’s wonderful album Earthling (which came after Bowie toured with Trent Reznor) or Tin Machine, an underrated two album period in which Bowie took a more low-key frontman approach and shifted to a noisier sound.

But Bowie was at his best when he was driven by words and noise. Perhaps Bowie needed to sink in the quicksand of his thoughts in order to return as valiantly and as resiliently as he did. Bowie made changing your image look as easy as putting on a new pair of socks. If his life’s work can be likened to taking the complex and personally devastating and making it appear so simple, then David Bowie was an undeniable musical genius whose legacy we are only just starting to understand.

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79 Great and Essential Podcasts I Listen To Regularly (And That You Should Be Listening to Too), Part Three

This is the third of a massive three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the first part, go here. To read the second part, go here.

podcast45Pitch: Much like Imaginary Worlds, Pitch works the music realm with just the right rigorous touch, never too wonky about its subjects while shining the investigative light in some unexpected corners, such as how to run an independent record label in an age of declining revenue and an audio association that I thought I was the only person in the world to hold: namely, the iPhone notification sound’s close propinquity to the Beach Boys’s “Sloop John B.” But Pitch works very well when it gets into such outlier subjects as a consideration of the “bow chicka wow wow” porn music sound and how a porn composer goes about creating a sonic texture, which is a far more arduous and accomplished task than one might think. (Link)

podcast46PMACast- A Pretty Much Amazing Podcast: I have no idea if this tremendously useful musical podcast, which has prominently featured rocking indie staples, is permanently defunct or merely resting, but I am including it here in the hope that the producers resuscitate this show on a regular basis, for the clear passion and the fine assiduity that the producers (and guest contributors) put into finding new tracks was a very worthwhile part of my rotation. (Link)

podcast47Psychology of Eating: I am not really a fan of confessional call-in shows, largely because the people who produce these types of affairs tend to be predatory carnival barkers in the way that they respond to a person’s long-standing grief with pat reductionist answers that don’t even begin to chip away at pain’s lifelong hold upon a troubled person. Yet there is something both revealing and bizarre in Marc David’s approach that keeps me coming back. David spends an hour listening to someone — and it always seems to be a woman — coming to terms with her relationship to food and eating and how this has drastically unsettled her life, often her self-esteem, and her image of herself. These subjects are often living very good lives that they cannot seem to see and, through these conversations, we come to understand the insidious role that body image plays on many women, that the way in which these women seem to believe that they must walk the earth without a single ounce of fat on them is a remarkable and needless burden that deserves great consideration until we can inhabit a world that is more equitable in accepting people. (Link)

podcast48Radio Diaries: It’s hard to believe that this always fresh offering of notable historical figures has been around in various forms for twenty years. For this is often a tremendously moving portal into some of the important people who have slipped through the cracks — whether it involves tracking down Claudette Colvin, a teenager who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks but who has been needlessly overlooked by historians, or listening to the perspectives of prison guards who hold watch over juvenile offenders in North Carolina and see and intuit more than you might think. (Link)

podcast49Radio Drama Revival: If you are in any way concerned with the present and future of radio drama, Fred Greenhalgh is your man. This is probably the best curated show around for contemporary radio drama, profiling the ambitious 3D efforts of the ZBS Foundation, the raw improvisational roots of Pleasure Town, and, upon the great Stan Frebeg’s passing, a loving retrospective. In addition to featuring lengthy shows in their entirety, Greenhalgh generously includes interviews with the producers involved with the shows that illuminate many behind-the-scenes elements. And the podcast serves as a tremendously reliable counterpart to the fine Scotsmen who run the aforementioned Audio Drama Production Podcast. (Link)

podcast50Radiolab: Much like This American Life, Radiolab established much of the lingua franca behind narrative radio. And with its rapid-fire editing, its commitment to layered sound texture, its thoughtful consideration of largely science-oriented topics, and the strange chemistry between hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, Radiolab remains an always reliable and always thoughtful staple in investigating such topics as the touch-and-go evolution of Candid Camera, the Cuban punk rock scene, and the creepy manipulation of human behavior by Facebook engineers. (Link)

podcast51Relic Radio Sci-Fi (Link), Relic Radio Thrillers (Link), and Strange Tales (Old Time Radio): (Link): If you want to get up to speed on old time radio (or are interested in exploring the Robert Johnson-like roots of OTR), these three podcasts are the ones you need to listen to. In addition to featuring old stalwarts like Suspense, X Minus One, Quiet Please in active rotation, there are also slightly more obscure shows like The Creaking Door, Inner Sanctum, and The Zero Hour included in the bunch. Old time radio has a rich history extending many decades, one inexplicably overlooked as we enter a putative “golden age of podcasting.” And once you begin to pick up on the theatrical cadences and dramatic energy that these old shows had to offer, which is hardly confined to the piqued cliches that some attempting to follow in radio drama’s footsteps are regrettably mimicking, you’ll start to get a sense of what podcasting may be capable of as it continues to blossom.

podcast53Reply All: Okay, I have to confess that there’s something ineluctably techbro and tendentious about Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt that can be very off-putting, even though this duo has started to actively pursue viewpoints well outside of their “Wassup?” default setting. The pair isn’t always fair to their subjects, often jumping on listeners to condemn a particular point of view before having a chance to take it in, and can be needlessly self-congratulatory at times (the obnoxious “Yes Yes No” segments, in particular, have got to stop). So why am I recommending it? Because Reply All is still a worthwhile contribution to tech-related podcasts, especially when the stories pursue some seemingly pedantic but surprisingly rich subject such as how the man who invented pop-up ads lives with his ethical legacy or the remorseless and obdurate vigilante behind Ripoff Report. When Reply All allows its subjects to speak and tell their stories, it offers interesting insights into how technology summons human obsession, for better or worse. So I’m not ready to give up on Reply All anytime soon, even if I wish that its two hosts would stop gazing at their navels and look more outside of themselves. (Link)

podcast54Ronna & Beverly: This podcast is so good that it is often hard to believe that this show, ostensibly helmed by two fiftysomething Jewish women from Boston, is actually the work of two extremely brilliant improvisers named Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo. The two stay resolutely and hilariously in character as they interview comedy and TV celebrities for more than an hour, probing noisily into a guest’s love life, bringing up Israel, dishing up celebrity gossips, contemplating the size of Jon Hamm’s penis, offering many politically incorrect observations, and torturing their sound engineer Sam about what he does during his outside time. When guests go along for the ride, such as this terrific conversation with Stephen Toblowsky, Ronna and Beverly excels at levels matched only by The Colbert Report. (Link)

podcast55Serendipity: If the future of radio drama is ripe with possibility, then Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson are determined to burst through its natural limits with Serendipity, a recently introduced podcast that counts five episodes so far of varying experimental range. The debut episode, “Every Heart Has a Limited Amount of Heartbeats,” established an uncannily vivacious standard of field recording, intense incantations, and aggressive collage that immediately seized my ears and refused to let go. And while subsequent episodes have offered slightly more traditional fare, there remains great poetic promise in this program to back up Heppermann’s bold call to push storytelling boundaries. (A good introduction to Serendipity‘s ethos can be found through this Radio Drama Revival episode, which includes an interviewer with Ann Heppermann.) (Link)

podcast56Serial: There’s been some debate over whether Serial‘s second season can match the first (with many gossipy ADD types abandoning Serial for the true crime Netflix sensation, Making a Murderer), or whether the current story of Bowe Bergdahl isn’t so much the work of Sarah Koenig, as it is Mark Boal putting together a movie with crass opportunism. But Koenig’s reporting is not to be gainsaid so easy. She has spoken directly with the Taliban and, while Bergdahl may not be as sympathetic a subject as Adnan Syed, Serial is still pursuing very important questions on how someone condemned for treason and cowardice should be understood through his own constantly shifting motivations, which has caused me to listen to each episode at least twice. (Link)

podcast57Seriously…: This is a recently retooled version of several BBC radio documentary feeds, which appears to be the Beeb’s effort to attract younger listeners. There’s less of the hardcore reporting behind Assignment and more documentaries about video games and the Whole Earth Catalog. But if you listen to both this feed and the Documentaries BBC World Service feed, you should be able to listen to a well-rounded series of offerings from across the pond. And you’ll need to. Because the BBC only allows you to download these programs for a month before closing the gates for good. (Link)

podcast58Song Exploder: The setup is simple: find a greatly revered song or piece of music, tear it apart, get the composer or the musicians to talk about it (often producing demos and, in one recent case, a crude voice memo recorded into a phone), and discover the often serendipitous creative process behind some of the more rocking tunes circulating the present cultural clime. The show has recently ventured into the stories behind soundtracks as well, with Harry Gregson-Williams relaying how he got signed on to score The Martian. One does wonder how long this formula will last or whether Song Exploder may now be angling itself to be less about breaking down music and more of a territory manipulated by savvy publicists. But for now, Song Exploder remains a solid sui generis podcast. (Link)

podcast59Spark: Nora Young is a highly energetic Canadian whose voice sounds unnervingly similar to someone I once dated and no longer want to have anything to do with. But these are my hangups, not Young’s. And I’d be foolish and pusillanimous to condemn an extremely worthwhile offering of Canadian culture simply because of an alarming euphony. Young’s smart and vivacious meditations on technology often tackle heavy-hitting issues such as the casual way that couples invade each other’s privacy, surge pricing, and the ever present problem of time management. And in a crowded field of tech podcasts, Young’s weekly dispatches prove to be winning thoughtful epistles. (Link)

podcast60The Sporkful: This recommendation comes with a caveat: host Dan Pashman has a a rather relentless laugh. Pashman laughs at everything: his jokes, a serious situation, an awkward situation. You get the sense that he sometimes laughs for the sake of laughing, that he would laugh unknowingly at a funeral or when doing taxes. It’s an alarming laugh. We all know some guy like Dan Pashman who laughs at all times, who makes us wonder if the laugh is sincere or some troubling automatic impulse that may require therapy. The good news is that, after ten episodes of being suspicious of Pashman’s laugh, I did finally come around to digging his show and accepting his laugh. Pashman mitigates against his tittering by not being pretentious (even though his laugh, as we have established, is highly suspect). He is a lover of all food, even if he is often very wrong about it (such as believing the hot dog to be a sandwich), and is curious and mindful enough to perform such sui generis investigations such as sandwich gender imbalance and what it is like to dine out in a wheelchair. The strange and perhaps truly laudable quality here is that, for all of these progressive considerations, Pashman is never sanctimonious about it. But he does have the laugh, which is now too deeply ingrained within Pashman to be remedied. But maybe that laugh is the way for all of us to better appreciate food. (Link)

podcast62Strangers: I first learned of Lea Thau after I stumbled upon her remarkable, must-listen, soul-baring “Love Hurts” series (1 2 3 4), in which Thau documented her efforts to find romance in stunningly honest detail: interviewing the men who rejected her, confessing her loneliness and her weaknesses, fiercely analyzing why she has stayed single and even subjecting herself to a questionable relationship expert. It was stunning and terribly brave radio that anyone in a place of loneliness and hurt might want to listen to. And this is, of course, what makes Strangers such an incredible program. The subjects, whether they be Thau or somebody else, are free to confess their most naked and humiliating feelings (such as a teacher who went years without learning how to read) and Thau’s intimacy forces us to empathize with them. Listening to Strangers, one finds great strength in confronting human frailties. And it is this quality, among many others, that makes several episodes of Strangers among some of the finest personal narratives to be found online. (Link)

podcast63Sword and Scale: On first listen, Sword and Scale might seem like a fairly sensationalist true crime show. But it’s far more than that. In exploring such intense topics as the 1978 Guyana mass suicide and the primitive human identity that we can’t shake, Sword and Scale willfully includes some of the most shocking and horrifying audio to buttress its viewpoint. But at its best, such as this investigation into media and gun violence, Sword and Scale succeeds in being an off-kilter, thoughtful podcast into our darkest qualities. The show does not shy away from anything (not even in discussing the human body’s deterioration) and, in so doing, shakes the listener out of a blinkered view to engage with difficult truths. Mike Boudet often narrates with an intensity somewhere between John Walsh and Arch Oboler, but it somehow strikes the perfect tone between theatrical drive and something oddly meaningful in the understanding. (Link)

podcast64Ten Minute Podcast: Will Sasso, Bryan Callan, and Chris D’Elia are reliably silly men for this goofy podcast, which features such dependable regular characters as washed up standup comedian David Greco, the warmly puglistic Everybody’s Dad, and Skype sessions with people who may or may not be bona-fide listeners. And it’s only ten minutes long, which means that even a flailing installment of this show doesn’t overstay its welcome too long. While the trio doesn’t show up together as frequently as they used to due to industrious show business careers, and the show is now on some kind of odd hiatus, I have a feeling that the show is merely regrouping for some newfound silly stage where it will surprise itself and its audience. (Link)

podcast65There’s Something Out There: Only five episodes of this fascinating podcast have been produced so far and one hopes that this isn’t the end. Because this is one of the best podcasts out there that attempts to wrestle with the wholly inexplicable: the incidents in life that one can’t quite explain, that often entail coming to spiritual or religious conclusions, but that all of us must contend with as human beings. With top-notch production value and something oddly journalistic in the way that the narratives are told, There’s Something Out There negotiates a smart balance between the factitious and the factual for which more podcasts, striving for authenticity, should take heed. (Link)

podcast66Thinking Allowed: When I first started listening to Thinking Allowed a few years ago, I was initially skeptical due to the apparent Anglophonic pomp and circumstance behind Laurie Taylor’s voice. But I’m glad I stuck it out with this extremely sharp and worthwhile program, which profiles sociology and ethnography in a breezy manner. (Link)

podcast67Third Coast International Audio Festival: Think of this as the nonfiction counterpart to Radio Drama Revival, whereby host Gwen Macsai and her team of dependable curators scour radio and podcasts to find the most moving and probing documentaries for these thematic programs. The show is quite happy to single out specific producers, such as formidable music documentary producer Alan Hall, whose moving portraits of Jeff Buckley and Elly Stone recently led me down rabbit holes that resulted in a rambunctious email thread with two friends over whether Stone was quite possibly the world’s most sensitive singer of all time. The regular podcast, Re: Sound, is probably responsible for me discovering more than a handful of the podcasts that are on this list. And there is no better showcase that I know of for some of the exciting voices flexing their talents in podcasting. (Link)

podcast68This American Life: Can Ira Glass be uptight, somewhat foolish, a little stiff, too reliant on the same music cues we’ve been hearing for more than a decade, and more than a bit condescending after twenty years? Absolutely. But he’s not to be discounted. Every narrative podcast in existence owes something to the way in which This American Life established many of the ground rules. And the show’s thematic approach still shows great resilience in chronicling the human, such as a recent collection of stories about people combating their fears, a wonderful investigation into what people are willing to do for love, and a rather marvelous Zoe Chase investigation into how fast food is named. Sometimes, Glass can be remarkably stilted in the execution of a thrilling story (such as this take on the Rabin assassination). But This American Life, for the most part, still delivers. (Link)

podcast69This is Actually Happening: The conceptual thrust behind Whit Missildine’s long-running program involves taking a seemingly unlikely human experience (living as a fake priest marrying people in Japan, a deadly shooting from a crazed shirtless man as a woman is driving in the middle of nowhere) and exploring every conceivable angle of what it was like to experience it without intruding upon the person’s story. Missildine layers the stories with moody music, but what I suspect he has truly set out to do is make the strangest stories more palpable so that we can broaden our notion of what existence is truly about. We have all experienced improbable adventures, but This is Actually Happening demands that we take these seriously. You leave an episode of Missildine’s program often in a strange and profound fog. That’s how good this show is at allowing another person’s intimate details to sneak up on you. It’s almost as if the listener is a kind of vicarious therapist unable to steer the details, but then that’s part of the point. (Link)

podcast70To the Best of Our Knowledge: Upon the first few listens, To the Best of Our Knowledge may seem like your typical topical compendium show: a casual rundown of notable names and fine minds offering the greatest cerebral hits for a public audience. But there is something quite subtly daring about Anne Strainchamps and Steve Paulson’s approach that has transformed me into a big fan. A recent hour devoted to the human voice featured several compelling segments, ranging from an African-American actor contending with casting agents telling him that he needed to be “more urban” to the way in which subtle patriarchal forces were singling out vocal fry to police the way that women are “supposed” to speak. To the Best of Our Knowledge also aired a particularly gutsy and thoughtful series on death over for several weeks, something that you really don’t hear much at all on a syndicated public radio show, that demanded its listeners to come to terms with mortality and its impact upon our lives. So Anne Strainchamps may seem to be a polite, urbane, and crowd-pleasing radio host. But as you come to listen to her, you begin to realize that she has a comforting dark streak and a wry sense of humor. Also, any show that allows punk historian Legs McNeil to get really pissed off on-air is good in my book. (Link)

podcast71The Truth: Spearheaded by the redoubtable Jonathan Mitchell, with considerable assists from such unsung improvisational wunderkinds as Louis Kornfeld and other dependable contributors from the Magnet Theater, The Truth is putting out some of the finest radio drama today. These are strange stories for our contemporary age, tapping into such moral quandaries as parental displacement, a delightfully satirical investigation into leisure, and an especially creepy story about damnation in the underworld. The Truth works as well as it does because it is committed to meaningful, somewhat soul-searching performances embedded within a calm and exacting atmosphere that is equally committed well-timed silences and faint rustlings. This gives The Truth a peculiar tension between something faintly comic and faintly fierce, feeling, at times, like a soundscape inspired from a David Lynch film. <(Link)

podcast72Unfictional: Whether it’s a woman who suffers from Cotard’s delusion or a man who unknowingly lived across the street from Whitey Bulger, Bob Carlson’s long-running forum for personal storytelling continues to deliver some truly touching tales, when it isn’t devoting one of its solid half hours to legendary radio artist Joe Frank or its annual 24 Hour Radio Race challenge, whereby producers are enlisted to write, record, and edit a story in less than a day. (Link)

podcast73The Urbanist: There is nearly nothing on the airwaves that I can find that explores city-related issues with such rigor and international reach. Think of The Urbanist as a radio counterpart to CityLab, where issues ranging from neglected delivery drivers to urbanistas are explored in rapid-fire bursts in so many locations that one wonders if The Urbanist has somehow enlisted a massive army of regular contributors ready to be activated into action upon one sinister call from host Andrew Tuck. (Link)

podcast74The Virtual Memories Show: When people ask me where they can go to find thoughtful discussions on literature after they learn that my own podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, is no longer in production, I send them to Gil Roth’s loquacious conversations with top-notch artists and thinkers. Roth has this strange ability to get someone to talk thoughtfully for a good six minutes based on one question. And when I met Roth for the first time at a Brooklyn coffeehouse, I realized that this was something he seems to be born with. For he managed to get me to ramble at length for six minutes in a way that I certainly never intended to and that I usually don’t. There’s always a moment near the end of Roth’s show where there is a sudden beat, followed by the question “So what are you reading?” phrased in an intense interrogative manner that recalls the Senate investigating the Watergate scandal, illustrating his real purpose: to keep curiosity and thoughtful wonder about books that fewer people read alive. It’s a game I’ve abandoned in radio, for life is too short to pamper the petulant infants of the literary world when there are real readers you can invite to your extravagant dinner parties, but one that I’m glad Roth is still keeping alive. (Link)

podcast75We’re Alive: This stirring zombie apocalypse drama packs as many characters into its unfolding story as The Walking Dead and has built up a massive narrative of more than 100 episodes that it is quite easy to get pleasantly gripped by. We listen to the characters as they face resource shortages and lose loved ones, but We’re Alive, through a settlement erected at an apartment complex, appears equally more committed to exploring parallels between our present world and the dystopian path not taken. (Link)

podcast76The White Whale: Anyone fond of baroque, somewhat experimental radio drama should be listening to the crazed efforts of CyNar Pictures, which features a strange tension between the making of art and the discussion of art erupts with every installment of this gargantuan potpourri of spoken word, the rambling conversations of The Yokai Trilogy (almost a DVD commentary without end), and whatever other whims erupt from these mysterious producers. who have been at work on this possibly aimless, possibly highly purposeful project for a good year. There is a ghost story of some sort beneath all this meta banter, but it’s up to the listener to determine whether the specter is something chased through the act of telling stories or talking about storytelling. (Link)

podcast77WideShut Webcast: I first learned of WideShut through an episode of Sword and Scale, when the two podcasts collaborated on a gripping story about the Hampstead Satanic cult, a truly alarming and far from resolved case of sex abuse and false allegations that should cause pause for anyone in our age of outrage. Political conspiracy is Keelan Balderson’s stock in trade and there are fascinating questions here on how media shapes our notion of evil and how we judge other people. (Link)

podcast78The World in Words: This pithy show, unrolled in twenty minute installments, investigates language, but is, like any good topical podcast, very much invested in the larger world. A recent two part investigation into fake accents in pop music, ushered in by this worthwhile effort to contend with the pop punk sneer, proved especially perspicacious, as did these insights into how ASL is tinged with a Philly dialect. For anyone obsessed with such pedantics (and I’m afraid I shall be to my last dying day), The World in Words is a casually probing and invaluable entry into the way we communicate and its impact upon all around us. (Link)

podcast79WTF with Marc Maron: Marc Maron has many gifts as an interviewer and as a comedian, but what he does so well with his highly entertaining show is the way that he gets at the root of fears and anxieties in himself and in his guests. It’s reflected in his longtime obsession with a Saturday Night Live audition with Lorne Michaels, one that he finally got closure on in November, and in the burgeoning empathy that has crept evermore into his lengthy introductions this year. Maron can be troubled and often angry, but what makes WTF such a wonderful listening experience isn’t just the way it documents the history of comedy and increasingly music (although this is often very interesting), but observing a man finally having the courage to mature late in life. Maron is deepening in ways he may not even know. And in its post-Lorne Michaels incarnation, WTF hasn’t finished growing by a long shot. (Link)

podcast80Zoe Nightingale: Zoe Nightingale is one of the funniest, most courageous, and gloriously iconoclastic interviewers around, who secured my unshakable loyalty when she somehow stumbled onto a story that drew many strikingly original connections between animal rights, homelessness, and rigid ideology and in taking her family to Burning Man, where she made valiant efforts to expose them unapologetically to pansexual possibilities. There really aren’t too many podcasters willing to go there like this. There’s something charmingly liberating about Zoe Nightingale. She’s just dangerous enough to push us out of our comfort zones, yet still committed to the celebration of life, almost an Iris Murdoch on steroids. (Link)

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79 Great and Essential Podcasts I Listen To Regularly (And That You Should Be Listening to Too), Part Two

This is the second of a year-end three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the first part, go here. To read the third part, go here.

podcast24Fugitive Waves: Until I had listened to The Kitchen Sisters’s very thoughtful podcast, I had no idea that an all-women radio station once flourished in Memphis during the mid-20th century (and was the idea of Sam Phillips!). Fugitive Waves has been doing incredible work finding meaning and history within snippets of sound and tracking down many fascinating figures whose daily lives involved significant advancements towards much of what we take for granted today and what may, in fact, be disappearing before us (such as this fascinating portrait of the late Taylor Negron, which was told largely through a series of voicemails that the comedian horded). (Link)

podcast25Great Lives: Great lives are often riddled with unfathomable sacrifices and ambition, and can indeed be so great that we scarcely know how great a person is until she is no longer around. And then there’s the matter of contending with greatness when we have never met the person in question. Influence remains a strange human predicament, but the details are always worth coaxing out. For how else do we instill our lives with the curiosity and the wonder to be as great as we can be for others? Presenter Matthew Parris is sometimes a tad too interested in aberrant gossip, but this program remains a reliable watermark illustrating the impact of a major figure on another prominent person’s life. And there are some fascinating inspirational sources, such as Monica Ali championing Richard Francis Burton or Ian McKellen on Edmund Hilary. The show reminds us that we are, even late in life, indebted to the people who formed us, who gave us some clue on how to go about living as greatly as we can. (Link)

podcast26Guys We Fucked: When I tell people how much I love this show, and how wonderfully courageous and honest hosts Krystyna Hutchinson and Corinne Fisher are, they look at me as if I’m some prurient middle-aged man. Well, perhaps I am in some way. But that’s not why I’m recommending the excellent Guys We Fucked. The setup involves the two ladies interviewing people who they have slept with or who have made a similarly splashing impact in their lives or who, like 62-year-old Jenice Matias, are still living the good life with a high sex drive. But this is not a podcast merely devoted to the licentious. There’s also a great vulnerability and sense of discovery in these conversations, with vital discussion points examining our relationship to sex, whether we be promiscuous or not. In a recent program, Krystyna described her many feelings in participating in her first threesome with her boyfriend. She was forced to reckon with the pleasure, the unexpected jealousy, the ennui, and the uncertainty of what transpired. It was one of those human moments, where the bawdiness gave way to ineluctable emotional dilemmas, that made me become an unrepentant booster of this podcast, that it wasn’t just some fun sex-positive show but one chronicling something much bigger that few people have the bravery to face and that we probably should in some way. (Link)

podcast27Here Be Monsters: Much like Sword and Scale, producer Jeff Entman is keenly pursuing some of the darker and challenging aspects of human existence — whether it be how a parent raises a small boy who suddenly realizes she’s really a girl or an extremely compelling and disturbing take on hate speech that is a must listen for anyone who cares about national expression. Entman rarely take the easy judgmental way out and it is his gentle compassion that compels us to dive deep into the lives of people we might not otherwise encounter in the real world. Entman is a true-blue humanist who pushes past our distaste and demands that we feel for the beasts and the demons we’d otherwise ignore. And if he’s this good now, I can’t wait to see the kind of radio he’ll be making five years from now. (Link)

podcast28Imaginary Worlds: I must confess that I’ve had a queasy and uneasy relationship with speculative fiction and fantasy over the last few years. I’ve always loved these genres and still dip in these reading waters, but the thoughtless agitation by frightened white men (seen with the Hugo Awards imbroglio) and the unearned arrogance of passable but not really all that terrific authors who seem to believe that being nominated for a World Fantasy Award is akin to Popehood has really helped to push me away. So I’m terribly grateful that the thoughtful and level-headed Eric Molinsky has gone out of his way to not only investigate tricky topics and listen to all sides (such as this episode on the Slave Leia controversy), but is rich enough in his pursuits to look into why certain types of stories (the paranoid and conspiracy-based appeal of The X-Files) take hold upon American culture. This is to speculative fiction what A Life Less Wasted is to video games: shining ruminative radio that has vacillators like me giving cultural terrain occupied by children another chance. (Link)

podcast29The Infinite Monkey Cage: It’s a fairly simple setup: put scientists together with comedians and have them discuss everything from quantum theory to the science of speed to genetics to the big bang. The conversations are always fun and thoughtful, sometimes heated, and the show remains a reliable stalwart among many science-based podcasts. (Link)

podcast30Limetown: I glommed onto Limetown, thanks in part to Jason Boog’s impassioned advocacy, and I’m so glad that I did. This is first-class radio drama and, once you hit the fourth episode, you won’t be able to stop listening to the entire run. It starts off as an homage to Serial, following a radio reporter investigating a mysterious “Panic” in a small town, before turning into a smart and riveting dialectic between science and the supernatural, and then folding in on itself with some high personal stakes. The show has top-notch production, great voice acting (particularly John Milosich as the obsessive scientist Max Finlayson), and sometimes veers into poetic riffs on Planet of the Apes, capitalism, what knowing your lover’s every thought really means — to the point where you forget, even as the final show takes on the form of a “live radio show,” that this is indeed an ostensible radio show, much less a radio drama. Limetown is very much the present and future of radio drama. It is not to be missed. (Link)

podcast31Longform: It took a few years for the boys at Longform to get their sea legs, but, now that they are attracting the likes of Ira Glass and Renata Adler (arguably her most revealing interview yet, thanks to Max Linsky’s enthusiastically persistent questioning style), the big draws are forcing these conversations about media and journalism life to mature quite gracefully. The dudebro talk is now at a minimum now that the hosts have gotten hitched and sired kids. And where else are you going to hear Ira Glass caviling with the interviewing style, forcing Longform to return for an unexpected rematch to atone for unasked questions? (Link)

podcast32Lore: In a podcasting climate crowded by many personal narratives, Lore distinguishes itself with its philosophical thrust, looking into the history of why people cling to possessions or how we live with hunger. Producer Aaron Mahnke’s investigation into the Cleary family is, for example, a fascinating examination of how Michael Cleary’s crazed belief that his wife Bridget was a changeling led to the most tragic outocme imaginable: the murder of his wife. But Mahnke seems to believe that there was something more human in the relationship that caused Michael Cleary to create a belief. Whether you believe Mahnke’s conclusions or not, his show is always thought-provoking, enhanced by a very atmospheric sound design. (Link)

podcast33Love + Radio: One of the most moving radio installments I heard in the last year was a story called “The Living Room,” in which a woman watches her neighbors, who always keep their curtains open and walk around the house naked, and then witnesses something tragic and extraordinary. And that is because Nick van der Kolk’s Love + Radio continues to take some of the biggest chances in podcasting, documenting the life of a “humilatrix,” finding fresh angles on the eruv, and talking with a man who speaks on behalf of sex offenders. This is compelling radio without being creepy. These are stories that need to be told. (Link)

podcast35Monday Morning Podcast (with Bill Burr): In addition to being one of the funniest standup comedians working today (and really you should see him if he passes through your town), Bill Burr puts out a twice-weekly podcast where he complains (often about banks, sports, drinking too much, and his problems with computers), looks things up on the Internet, offers advice to people who write in, and mangles the copy of his sponsors without apology. Burr claims not to give a fuck and often says a lot of foolish things for the sake of saying them, but there’s a weird humanity to Burr in the way he cares for the people who write in that makes him more than a mere everyman. The best parts of this show often occur when Burr’s wife Nia gets on the mike to rightly bust his chops for his errant views. (Link)

podcast36Mystery Show: When the great Jonathan Goldstein closed his witty radio show Wiretap earlier this year, I was bummed out, but delighted to find him cropping up on an episode of Mystery Show in obsessive desperation. His goal involved tracking down the mystery of a knotted jacket that once appeared on a Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox, a scene that never appeared in the show that had aggravated him for years. Goldstein needed peace on this pressing issue and producer Starlee Kine devoted a good 88 minutes for her friend, talking with actors, hounding Gabe Kaplan, tracking down co-creator Alan Sacks, entering the world of lunch box illustrators. It is such great journeys, revealing the wends and digressions of good faith investigation, that makes Mystery Show a great deal of fun and show its bright promise in our rigorous pursuit of the joyous unknown. (Link)

podcast37Neighbors: If podcasting is indeed in a “golden age,” this well-earned glory has much to do with the sudden influx of raw personal narratives to the airwaves unfolding in ways that the weak-kneed, risk-averse NPR oligarchs have neither the vision nor the originality to conceive. By now, you’ve undoubtedly glommed onto the fact that many of the podcasts on this list are composed of emotionally naked stories of people who have discovered some connection to the universe they didn’t know they possessed. The Nashville-based Jakob Lewis’s contribution to this field has everything to do with connection, even an unusual one. One especially standout episode explored the draw that stuffed animals have upon adults, a phenomenon that might be easily dismissed by the thuggish snark police as nostalgia or sustained adolescence. But in Lewis’s hands, this exploration becomes something unexpectedly poignant, where we become aware how the plush toys (one posted on a street flyer) allow many of these people to sustain a vital link between childhood and adulthood through the intimacy of sleep. It may be eccentric, but who are we to gainsay how a person remains a caring individual? Who indeed are we to judge the eccentricities of others? Lewis’s brilliant podcast contains vital questions about how our scrutiny of others affects their lives and, for a man like me who is trying to be kinder, it has provided a welcome wakeup call that we could very well be on the other side of another person’s judgment and why it’s so important to accept a quirk or a fallacy rather than condemn it. (Link)

podcast38New Sounds: If you have any true sense of adventure at all, you know intuitively that it’s necessary to shake up your music palate from time to time. That’s where John Schaefer comes in, helpfully investigating new possibilities for the trombone (including a mass composed of 77 trombones!), plunging into American folk songs, profiling the Kronos Quartet, offering one of the best overviews of street composer Moondog produced for radio, and exploring the intersection between chamber music and turntables. New Sounds regularly turns me onto artists and genres I’ve never heard of before. And Schaefer treats every cut, even if it is a batshit offering, with the tranquil import of a DJ working classical radio. New Sounds is a vital forum for eclectic music. I’m hard-pressed to summon any podcast that comes even close to Schaefer’s exquisite curation. (Link)

podcast39Nocturne: I stumbled upon this marvelous night-themed podcast quite by accident. I’m someone who often walks at night and, Googling around at an early morning hour after an eight mile walk, I stumbled upon this stunning segment of a woman who took to walking in a effort to find a similar peace. And then I started listening to producer Vanessa Lowe’s other episodes, such as this investigation into night as something of an iconoclastic cri de couer, and started to understand how little our relationship to the dark hours has been investigated and how truly extraordinary this simple yet essential pursuit truly is. (Link)

podcast40The Noise Pop Podcast: If you’re anything like me, you’re probably on the hunt for underground music that you’ve never heard of, even if you’re an old bastard. (Okay, maybe I’m not that old. But I knew I had aged out of the concert scene years ago when a young man, seeing me excitably dancing, called me “Dad” at a Spoon concert. This has not stopped me from attending shows on a regular basis.) And if you live a busy life, well, that’s where finding the aggregators becomes a necessary option. I first knew of Noise Pop when I lived in San Francisco, where it was a reliable festival for emerging bands. I don’t live in San Francisco anymore, but I’m very glad that Noise Pop still has a strong presence in podcasting form through a very useful monthly show that celebrates many of the acts without resorting to the kind of snark found all too often in Brooklyn Vegan message forums and Pitchfork reviews. (Link)

podcast41Note to Self: I really love Manoush Zomorodi. She has almost the perfect mix of enthusiasm, heart, journalistic introspection, and thoughtfulness in her pursuits of many of the technological dilemmas that plague us. How, for example, do you contend with a racist Facebook friend? Should teens who sext be entirely condemned? How do we deal with phones that seem to be reading our minds (and, similarly, this remarkable investigation into surveillance should give every American pause)? Do we really need a profile ghostwriter to find love through online dating? Why do our exes text us? Note to Self is smart without ever skimping on fun. It’s the kind of effervescent exploration into digital issues that is more needed today than ever. (Link)

podcast42Notebooks on Cities and Culture: I’ve no idea what Colin Marshall’s podcasting future is, but I hope it’s a bright and productive one. Marshall’s enthusiastic pilgrimages to many faraway and nearby lands (especially his ardor for Korea) have revealed angles on cities I never would have otherwise considered. (The Copenhagen shows are especially interesting.) His most recent campaign to raise funds for his podcast didn’t pan out (despite an indefatigable 67 episodes in his fourth season), yet his gallant and gracious visits to the people devoted who think about urban design and cities continues with a new project on Byline. He’s still contributing podcasts to The Los Angeles Review of Books. I’m including him on the list, even though he is in limbo, because my sense is that Marshall’s epic canvassing is only the beginning of something that could prove very groundbreaking and game-changing, if he’s able to find the support to keep his journeys afloat. (Link)

podcast43On the Media: If you care about journalistic ethics or any subject that involves our always-shifting media climate, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield’s long-running show remains essential listening. Garfield has the voice of a grizzled veteran who’s been working the room too long and is often best when he’s delivering cranky interrogations of people he deems egregious. Gladstone is the empathizer to Garfield’s gruff beat cop. Together, the pair valiantly upholds important news standards, but does so with the same spirit of fairness that they demand of their subjects. (Link)

podcast44The Organist: It took a little while for this podcast adjutant to The Believer to figure out what it was doing, but now that it is less committed to cutesiness and awkward radio plays (though that strain hasn’t been entirely deracinated), it has started to produce very interesting radio, such as this glimpse into what it was like to work for Orson Welles and this tremendously fascinating look at poet Christopher Knowles that really got me thinking about how loops and mainstream culture could very well be vital parts of being a distinct artist. There are some podcasts you have to stick with for a while to see how they develop. I’m thankful that I hung in there for The Organist, which I now greatly look forward to rather than remain uneasy about. (Link)

Next Up: Continue to Part Three!

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79 Great and Essential Podcasts I Listen To Regularly (And That You Should Be Listening to Too), Part One

(This is the first of a year-end three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the second part, go here. To read the third part, go here.)

Because I walk a great deal and produce radio, I listen to a fairly hefty number of podcasts. The only person I know who rivals my heavy listening is the incomparable Fred Kiesche, a remarkably generous friend to radio who once confessed to me that he listened to 105 podcasts. (That the good Mr. Kiesche still finds time to be a dutiful family man and a hard worker is a tribute to his phenomenal character and his inspiring energies.)

Podcasting is not only an intimate and deeply meaningful medium that somehow always manages to refuel the soul, but it’s become an essential part of my efforts to understand numerous perspectives and other points of view. There are so many tremendously talented producers out there spending many hours of their precious time investigating human truths and unpacking existential quandries that I have felt incumbent to single out particularly outstanding examples from time to time on Twitter. But these efforts do not seem to be enough. Friends, who know of my fervent dedication, have often pressed me for the full list of titles. But because the number is quite large and there is something a bit gauche about consulting my phone and reading out a list of titles, I generally tend to hand-pick titles that I believe my friends will enjoy based on what I know of them and the time they have at their disposal. But this tactic, while honoring both producer and listener, is not altogether fair to all the podcasters I feel indebted to single out, for I am deeply loyal to and passionate about all of them.

So I’ve decided to reveal my full hand. This is the first of a three part article that will be released over the next week. Every podcast that I have listed below, covering variegated viewpoints and a motley array of topics, is doing incredible work in exploring the human condition and is worthy of your earbuds. Rather than break down the podcasts by subject, I am listing them in alphabetical order, with a few notes on why these shows are worth listening to.

podcasts199% Invisible: Roman Mars has become something of a rightful legend for establishing a formidable independent podcasting network, but he’s also a fantastically passionate producer, exploring the impact of architecture, design, and many other sensory realities we take for granted (such as wayfinding) without ever coming across as a know-it-all. Mars’s voice is warm and sincerely gushing, almost demanding that the listener bolt to the library to learn more. This program is a generous and well-researched resource for information junkies, getting into the history of military food and how it affected our kitchens and overturning, in Snopes-like fashion, the true history of milk carton kids, which was not as prominent in American culture as one might think. That Mars manages to pack so much into twenty minutes on a regular basis is a tribute to his concision, his very smart sensibilities, and his deeply meaningful impact upon podcasting. (Link)

podcast2A Life Well Wasted: Robert Ashley has produced only seven installments of his tremendously intelligent exploration of video games in in the past six years, but a newly released episode of A Life Well Wasted is always an event. The show, which started with a nonpareil oral history of Electronic Gaming Monthly‘s closing that brought heart and sophistication about how bonds are formed at a magazine, is driven by empathy and listening. Ashley does all the atmospheric sound and music on his own. The great composer Ennio Morricone recently defined a real composer as “someone who does the composition, orchestration and arrangement.” If such a definition can be shifted over to the podcasting world, then Robert Ashley is one of the most real podcasters we are very fortunate to have. (Link)

podcast4Anxious Machine: To what degree are we changed or possibly tormented by technology? Rob McGinley Myers is very much on the case, whether its tapping into his brother’s hatred for the Internet or an incredibly touching story about a woman who refused to believe that she was losing her hearing and how her life changed when she received hearing aids. What I love so much about Anxious Machine is how it is about technology without never seeming to be about it. It has this amazing way of emphasizing the human in all of its segments, almost mimicking the obliviousness of the profiled subjects in the way that a tool has changed them. (Link)

podcast5ARRVLS: There is a podcaster who I won’t name, someone who I mistook for a friend, who believes that he’s so good and so certain about people but who blew a very big chance he had at a major radio program and who only really cares about how he can use people. I know this because I’ve heard from a few others who were bamboozled by him. Which is a great shame. Because this podcaster’s failure to be a kind and understanding person, his tremendous solipsism and immaturity, is what is causing his work to suffer and preventing him, irrespective of my personal feelings for him (for good work is good work, regardless of whether the artist is a jerk), from being on this list. For this podcaster does not possess the rigor, the empathy, much less the robust commitment to truly connect with people. He only makes radio because he has nothing else going on in his life and, because he really hates himself and seems to despise the people who so generously tell him their stories, his work is little more than desperate conceptual lunges that never pan out. So when I discovered the confident, cogent, deeply meaningful, compassionate, and wondrous show known as ARRVLS, I knew I was listening to something that represented what this other podcaster lacks the inner courage and the humility to reach. What distinguishes ARRVLS is the way in which Jonathan I. Hirsch’s great work lets its subjects present their ideas (such as this remarkable view of the body as a map). Hirsch never strangles the listener into a prerigged conceptual thesis that is predicated on ridicule over reality. His mixing springs from the cadences of the people he listens to. He wants to not only enhance other people’s stories, but to allow you to feel them in the nuanced manner that he dramatizes the stories through his sound design. Hirsch is an extraordinary talent and I’m baffled as to why his work isn’t championed more. (Link)

podcast6Audio Drama Production Podcast: If you haven’t been paying attention to the podcasting landscape, we are presently in the midst of a great radio drama renaissance! Producers all across the planet are telling exciting new stories in this ever evolving medium. Where in the sam hill does one even begin to get the lay of the land? Leave it to Matthew and Robert, the fine enthusiastic Scotsmen behind Yap Audio Production, to offer not only an endless cataract of tips and tricks for unwashed and experienced producers, but who are vigorously tracking any and all known developments and creating a vital and inclusive community in the process. Whether it’s a detailed breakdown of binaural drama or the two gents riffing in their car on A to Z terminology, Matthew and Robert’s excellent program remains a must listen for anyone who is even remotely interested in audio drama narrative. (Link)

podcast3A Way with Words: Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, based out of San Diego, are probably the most earnest and enthusiastic radio hosts on language working today. This is a call-in show, one that takes in queries about idioms, etymology, and odd lexical developments from listeners all across the country. So there is a certain populism involved, something that I have passionately defended in response to a few literary snobs who regrettably insist on sneering down on the rabble. But understanding language doesn’t have to be the province of the privileged few. As A Way with Words‘s weekly callers regularly remind us, words are something that affects all our lives. Barnette and Barrett are always unfailingly kind and patient and inclusive with the callers, reminding us that is our duty as thinking and feeling humans to do everything in our power to bring out infectious wonder and curiosity in all around us and not skimp out on the understanding. (Link)

podcast7BackStory: One of these days, some pedantic cultural journalist will identify the mysterious “Anonymous Donor” who helps keep this thoughtful program afloat. Whoever the donor may be, the generous help has allowed three endearingly effusive historians — each specializing in a different century — to produce one of the most low-key, relaxed, and far from humorless history programs on the radio. This great trio understands that looking back at the United States’s long relationship with Islam is vital to understanding what it is to be a Muslim in an age of Trump. But they’re not above delving into the history of shopping, a very useful overview of populism, and even America’s relationship with meat. The results, much like The Bowery Boys (see below), show that history need not be a turgid subject, but something so alive that it beckons an audience to seek the connecting threads to the present. (Link)

podcast8Belabored by Dissent Magazine: When the great Steven Greenhouse had to take a buyout from the New York Times in December 2014, America lost the only dedicated labor reporter working for a major newspaper. But Belabored, hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen, has been valiantly filling in the gaps, examining the ongoing “fight for $15” and helpfully filling in its audience on many of the important developments going on with organized labor. Interspersing Democracy Now!-style news summaries with author interviews, the show has become an invaluable resource for a topic that affects all of our lives, but that few media outlets seem to care about anymore. (Link)

podcast9Black Girls Talking: This perspicacious quartet of ladies are valiantly on top of pop culture, serving as a cheerful referendum on the privileged hubris that drives NPR’s obnoxious Pop Culture Happy Hour, whether it be interviewing Dear Kate founder Julie Sygiel or breaking down respectability politics with Janet Mock. This is pop culture talk that’s actually about something. The podcast somehow finds the energy to tackle racial representations in just about every major TV show and often gets into some lively and impassioned talk that seems to escape most self-appointed pundits. I was able to save myself a ticket for Magic Mike XXL (well, not that I ever really had the desire to see it), thanks in part to an episode that summed up everything I needed to know. And the regular crushes espoused by the ladies have had me wondering on occasion if it would be in my best interest to woo Mos Def. (Link)

podcast10The Black Tapes Podcast: Only a few months ago, this wonderfully creepy radio drama emerged on the Internet and has deservedly racked up a following. The show follows a radio reporter who sifts through a series of enigmatic tapes containing unresolved paranormal mysteries. From that simple setup, the show established a rather labyrinthine plot behind the tapes, something that goes deeper than a mere Serial meets The X-Files production. And that mystery has reached a point where the show’s devoted fans have transcribed all the episodes, hoping to find a way to uncover it all. When a podcast has that kind of well-deserved hold, you really see the power of radio. (Link)

podcast11Bookworm: Michael Silverblatt, one of the most generous and open-hearted readers in America, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his thoughtful conversations with today’s leading authors. Silverblatt often finds strange connections in an author’s work and his lengthy questions possess a dreamy and otherworldly quality that takes on a force beyond the book and the author. But Silverblatt is a deeply compassionate and very well-read literary enthusiast, gallantly vacillating between dependable stalwarts like Mary Karr and Joy Williams and hot talent like Paul Murray and Louisa Hall to urge his listeners to feel just as prodigiously as he does. The only real downside of this show is the rather corny theme song, but it’s a small sacrifice for the always capable and ever gentle questioning. (Link)

podcast12The Bowery Boys: For anyone fascinated by New York history, the sheer passion that shines through in this fairly regular podcast is well worth your time. Hosts Thomas Meyers and Gregory Young always manage to sound giddy, even when they are discussing such sinister topics as Typhoid Mary or the murder of Stanford White. A few recent shows have seen this ebullient tag team go out to the many locations they expound about and I hope future programs continue these peregrinations, as the Boys clearly need more than a loyal online audience to push their winning enthusiasm on. (Link)

podcast13Cephalopodcast: Depending upon your temperament, this podcast from the perspective of a toast-loving giant squid will either annoy you or delight you. For me, it’s an enjoyable and wonderfully bizarre recontextualization of the modern world. What crazed mind would conjure up a strange scenario in which a giant squid teaches his audience how to play a game of Monopoly while unpacking some of its sinister capitalist lessons? Wizard rock pioneers Paul and Joe DeGeorge, of course. But don’t think about that. It’s the squid’s overly excitable musings that matter most here. (Link)

podcast14Comedy of the Week: This is one of several BBC feeds I subscribe to. Results are mixed, for the comedy can range from deeply compelling one-man shows off the Fringe circuit to pedestrian episodes of sketch comedy series. But it’s always good to give this feed a shot. If I had not subscribed to the feed, I never would have found out about the remarkable quiz show, Just a Minute, or realized that several performers I enjoyed in guest roles on British comedies had sizable theater careers. (Link)

podcast15Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Dan Carlin is one of the few podcasters who can keep you completely spellbound for four hours just through the power of his voice. That’s right, four hours. Every few months, Carlin drops a very long, deeply passionate, and well-researched consideration of some historical event. And when that happens, you have to find the time to listen to it. He’s that good, using little to no sound effects for his ruminations. I’m not especially keen on military history, but Carlin’s six-part series, “Blueprint for Armageddon,” made me completely fascinated about World War I dynamics for many months, particularly its game-changing effect upon how people viewed combat and the remarkably brutal battles. Dan Carlin is a national podcasting treasure for a reason. (Link)

podcast16Death, Sex & Money: Anna Sale is one of the best interviewers on radio today. She has this tremendous power of getting just about anyone to talk and tell her dark secrets, even as she reminds us that everyone, whether it be celebrities like Jane Fonda or a “homeless valedictorian” who made headlines has an inner story that is considerably more different than what we see on the surface. This show always feels beautifully intimate and low-key, almost as if you’re encroaching upon the world’s most private conversation. But it is always very human. (Link)

podcast17Do or DIY with People Like Us: Vicki Bennett is a long-time WFMU staple who flits in and out of rotation, but her sound collages are always a marvel of association and discovery, especially if you enjoy music. She has this incredible knack for finding the craziest riffs on pop music, weird yodeling anthems, campy songs about camping, and serves as a droll triangulator. This makes her somewhat close to Dr. Demento, yet Bennett’s thrust is cheerfully iconoclastic, urging us to break down some of the sacred cows and find the joys in destroying them. Bennett was one of my inspirations when I began creating a few DJ mixes earlier in the year that can be found in the old Segundo feed. Being on the other end of what Bennett does, I now know just how much work and happy accidents it requires to find the right transitions. That Bennett has produced as much as she has is a tribute to her indomitable energies and unique talent. (Link)

podcast18Documentaries BBC World Service: Anyone who truly believes that NPR is a hardcore news organization should have a listen to Assignment, which offers regular nail-biting segments from many far off corners of the world, whether it be the effect that the Syrian crisis has had on former football players to drug mules in Peru. You listen to these BBC radio documentaries knowing that the equipment now exists for anyone to go into the field and do this kind of reporting and you wonder why America can’t establish something that reveals global perspectives on this level. (Link)

podcast19Drama of the Week: Another BBC feed that, like Comedy of the Week, can be a mixed bag. But very often, the shows are well put together. Because the BBC has this annoying one month limit on its downloadable content, it’s always good to siphon off whatever gets sent out into the world for later listening. I once downloaded a radio drama of The Sea, The Sea starring Jeremy Irons by accident because of this strategy. (What sensible mind wouldn’t want that?) (Link)

podcast20Earbud Theater: This popping compendium of genre radio drama (largely horror and science fiction) has good production quality, gripping stories, and a few big names (Stephen Toblowsky, source text from Neil Gaiman, et al.). I’m especially fond of “Super Bad Day,” in which four people are united only by the common experience of having the worst day imaginable and must contend with the guilt and absurdity of surviving a bad day. It’s a fine and lively riff, with a hell of a kicker ending, on the human dilemma of comparing other people’s miseries to cope and living with sacrifice. (Link)

podcast21Everything is Stories: We often do not know how our actions touch people, much less the way in which someone we think we know has touched someone in the past. Everything is Stories is a wonderful show that is all about exploring the amazing achievements that lurk underneath our personal core and that are sometimes muddled by pain and needless hangups. A recent program followed forensic artist Lois Gibson, the sharp mind who successfully identified the sailor kissing the nurse in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous V-J Day in Times Square photo. But the story that led her to this achievement is surprising and touching, especially as we come to learn the real reasons why she became so good at identifying faces. Everything is Stories reminds us that history is often composed of small tilting moments and it is always a gripping listen. (Link)

podcast22First Day Back: There comes a point in all of our lives in which we need to take a hard look at our lives, finding the strength inside us to rebuild and reassess our priorities. And filmmaker Tally Abecassis is doing just that in real time, documenting her return to filmmaking after six years of being a full-time mother. This program is a magnificent soul-searching confessional on balancing work and life, the difficulties of living with decisions, and often has Tally backtracking to the people who shaped her (such as this episode in which Tally seeks out a teacher who made a huge impact on her). Personal narrative podcasts are often tricky negotiations, but there are some fine questions about gender roles, personal stakes, and the bravery of making another attempt contained in this compelling program. (Link)

podcast23Frank Delaney’s Re: Joyce: Frank Delaney may be one of the most cheerfully determined men in the podcasting world. He is in his seventies, but that’s not stopping him from unpacking James Joyce’s Ulysses in bite-sized installments. (He’s done the first six chapters so far and there are, as of this writing, just under 300 installments.) One hopes that Delaney will live long enough, much as Will & Ariel Durant managed to finish their Story of Civilization in their nineties) to complete his project. Thankfully, with generous donors, he has recently escalated his pace. Re: Joyce is a tremendously useful service for anyone who cares about Joyce and literature, one that has led me down some strange rabbit holes involving Irish history, Catholicism, and cheesy limericks. (Link)

Next: Proceed to Part 2!

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On Living with an Inner Demon

This morning, I lost someone I loved. I never got to tell her that I loved her, but I did. She was warm, compassionate, intelligent, honest, courageous, independent-minded: everything you could ever want and more. My friends wanted to meet her. She was a dream that enters reality only a handful of times in your life. Needless to say, she meant everything to me. She was a woman whose life I wanted to make better. And that scared the fuck out of me. Because aside from living a life where close people seem to relish in abandoning me, the last time I loved someone like this, I was left for dead and ended up falling into an abyss of homelessness and joblessness and heartbreak that I crawled up from with a strength and valiance and resilience that I didn’t realize I had in me. Of course, that had been a pit of my own making.

You see, I have a problem. I live with a terrible demon inside me who is very frightening, who has this ability to wrap his scaly tentacles around all of my sterling characteristics and take over. He doesn’t come out as much as he used to, but he’s still there and he wants to destroy every good thing that happens to me and take down a few people if he can. He is a fearsome entity driven by fear who invades my core and tells me that I am not deserving of happiness and he persuades people who love me to stay away for the rest of their natural days. He sprouted during a time in which I experienced unfathomable pain and abuse, where people in my life would tell me that they loved me as they burned me with cigarettes and beat me and molested me. And this demon is so infamous that lies and rumors and conjectures about his existence have pervaded the literary world. Just about everyone in my family has the demon, which is one of many reasons I can’t have relationships with them, but some are not as aware of their demons as I am and, in some disheartening cases, they have not done the very difficult work in attenuating the demon or putting safeguards in place that ensure that the demon’s appearances last seconds rather than days.

I hate the demon with every fiber of my being and he revels in that hate. And even though his appearances in my life are very brief, and have been notably briefer in the last year thanks to work I’ve done and because I have surrounded myself with more positive and more honest people, they are frequent enough to dwarf the substantially wonderful qualities I also have, the character that causes many people to appreciate the sui generis being that I am. But the demon tells me that not a single soul will ever love and care for me. The demon makes people despise me and causes me, at times, to live a very solitary existence.

And now he has come out again and has scared the needless bejesus out of a tremendously kind woman who I let very deeply into my heart, someone who now wants nothing to do with me, someone who I said that I would give space to and then didn’t, someone whose inner peace I betrayed. And I have spent much of the day in tears. Because I didn’t know the demon was waiting in the wings, ready to chew up the scenery, and I couldn’t stop him from hogging the stage. This demon is a deeply evil and inconsiderate beast who is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in my life, yet the hell of it is that he’s also responsible for getting me to many places that I might not otherwise have reached. Just as people are never entirely good or evil, so too are demons.

I have sought considerable help in many forms and varieties against the demon. Many perspicacious professionals and fine minds have tried any number of techniques. The one thing that has worked is positivity. Perhaps it took getting humbled and severely knocked down for me to appreciate everything I have, which I remain grateful for every day, but positivity, whether it comes from me or from others, is not only its own reward, but it has this remarkable power against the demon. For the first time in years, I have lived many months without a single appearance by this scabrous all-consuming villain (although the demon’s more benign cousin, the grumpy commentator, does crop up on Twitter from time to time). And it’s all because I’ve opened myself up more to wonder and curiosity and joy and vivacity. So when I meet other people who have demons, and detect how much they are steered by them and see how little they recognize what is rollicking about inside, I go well out of my way to make them happy. Indeed, giving in many forms and performing secret good deeds and helping people out is what separates those who live with their demons, by which I mean an existence that involves knowing what conditions will keep the demon in check, from those who become totally consumed by them.

Being positive doesn’t mean turning your back on the world’s problems or ignoring social ills or adopting some treacly disposition. (I will, for example, remain staunchly opposed to Love Actually‘s morally contemptible and saccharine vision.) What it means is seeing possibility where others see hopelessness. What it means is working very hard to solve the insolvable, even if you fail and even if you only win back a small scrap of territory. What it means is life’s equivalent to how the marvelous Iris Murdoch once described the very greatest art: invigorating without consoling. Because who needs another “Sorry for your loss” when a loved one kicks the bucket? What everyone needs is the courage to go on, to live as gracefully as possible even as the worst things happen. Laughing through tears, summoning positive memories of people that our demons are telling us to despise on the spot, and being there for people are all effective ways to stub out pernicious fire.

I’m writing about my demon not only because I want to hold myself accountable, but because I want anyone who lives with a demon to know that they can live positively. I want them to know that even though I experienced what still feels like an earth-shattering loss, I’m still summoning some positivity. A friend’s funny cat photos, sent midway through the course of writing this essay, invigorated me greatly, as did another good friend who was gracious enough to meet me for lunch on last minute’s notice, where we had an honest and positive and far from humorless chat about this tricky dilemma of living with qualities that tear us down. It is this positivity, not unlike the joy that often flies high in the face of disaster, the “emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” that Rebecca Solnit documented in her excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell, that flenses the sebeaceous muck from our souls and returns us to that essential duty of living. You can never entirely conquer your demons, but with positivity you can live with them.

trumpvoters

On the Rise of Trump, the Failure to Reach the American People, and the Importance of “Great”

It is all too easy to dismiss a Donald Trump voter as a mere xenophobic bigot or to assert that this flailing mass of supporters, which hangs upon the tyrant’s every terrible word, is little more than a blank uneducated slate with which to imprint the most sinister hatreds and sordid hypocrisies seen from an outsider presidential candidate since George Wallace. There are certainly polls which suggest that the Trump base is overwhelmingly white, with little more than high school education. But when you leave a person for dead, cut adrift without resources in a callous American wasteland, and when your answer to his unsavory entreaties is to leave him out of your Weltanschauung or to block him on Twitter, do not be surprised if he turns to a demagogue in anger. Do not be astonished when he turns furious when there are no jobs and his life is discounted and he is very much afraid and his griefs, which can be reckoned with if caught early enough, transform into a hateful cancer. Do not be shocked when a tyrant comes along who grants the illusion of inclusiveness and who plays into a voter’s fears with the most extraordinary and unthinkable statements imaginable. Because you, with your gluten-free meals and your yoga mats and your blinkered sunbeam privilege, were never there for him.

We have been here before with Ross Perot and the Tea Party and even John Anderson in 1980. But we have also been here with Occupy Wall Street and Ralph Nader and, presently on the Left, the promise of Bernie Sanders. Populism is an amorphous and intoxicating serpent, epitomized by the infamous 1829 inauguration of Andrew Jackson, in which a drunken mob stormed the White House shortly after this twisted Jeffersonian offshoot was sworn in as a “great” patriarchal protector, a throng that could only be coaxed from the inner sanctum by bowls of spiked punch stationed on the outside lawn. But like it or not, we must accept that the American people have been told repeatedly that their individual viewpoints matter, that an everyman’s perspective is just as valid as that of a statesman, and that the playing field, even after nearly every study has demonstrated that income inequality is worse now than it was during the Gilded Age, is level. It is a distressing mirage, an insurmountable dream that even our most level-headed politicians continue to prop up. But who can blame anyone for wanting to believe in it? If we didn’t have that promise, if we continued to accept doom and gloom and mass shootings as the new American normal, then we’d have no reason to participate in politics.

Trump understands all this. And he is willing to spout forth any prevarication if it will carry the public through the murk and into his manipulative hands. Trump has endured, despite his shocking proposal to block all Muslims from entering the United States, and has maintained a 20 point lead in the polls not so much because of his beliefs, but because no other politician, with the possible exception of Sanders, has sustained the image of a formidable leader who is well outside the tentacles of a broken establishment and who will fix every problem through the sheer force of his inflexible (if deeply problematic) will. That it has come down to some sordid and superficial yahoo who boasts of possessing “the world’s greatest memory” speaks to the ravenous American hunger for something great.

makeamericagreatagainWhen populism has excelled in our nation, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and his many personal visits to workers employed through the Civilian Conservation Corps or the WPA (even if this came with the double-edged sword of internment camps), it was established on an intimacy between leader and follower, but one in which the follower had some real sense that his views were being considered. This was a relatively benign relationship predicated on national pride, of a belief in America as a nation of greatness. And if we listen to why voters are gravitating towards Trump, it becomes very clear that all they want is someone, anyone, who is aware of their existence and who will do something about it. They want someone who will “make America great again” or to make “America the way we once were.” The first sentiment is taken directly from a Trump supporter who is parroting the slogan on Trump’s website, that is indeed purchasable as a baseball cap, and that is inherently no different from Obama’s “Hope” campaign in 2008. And while it’s tempting to view this notion of “greatness” as something that is a regressive throwback due the “way we once were” qualifier, what voters are really communicating is that they want to be part of something great, which need not be rooted in recycling the past but in ensuring that greatness, previously experienced, is a palpable quality of our future. The promise of hope and change is simply not enough anymore. The American people rightfully demand a leader who will create results, even if this ideal is completely at odds with the realities of political compromise and brokering deals.

It is clear that Trump cannot be stopped through reasonable denouncements or a rhetorical standoff or pundits repeatedly limning his lies. What’s needed to sustain the American faith and reach the people is a voice that can speak stronger and with greater empathy and inclusion: a principled leader who won’t leave a single person behind (including Muslims) and whose very power will deflate all the air out of Trump’s balloon, exposing him for the hollow carnival act he really is. The Democrats have not had any presidential frontrunner willing to substantially include a voting bloc outside its centrist, middle-class demographic (that is, “working class,” blue-collar, the unemployed, or the homeless) since Mario Cuomo’s famous 1984 speech at the National Democratic Convention. This has been a serious mistake, especially given the nimble methods that Republicans have employed to scoop up this abandoned group of people. What made Cuomo’s speech so stirring was not just its remarkable truth-telling, but Cuomo’s insistence that he was not afraid to stand up to Reagan’s myth of America as “a shining city on a hill.” It was very much the principled outsider responding with a sense of history and a sense of honesty and a sense of profound need that would, in turn, create a great nation. Indeed, the word “great” is mentioned many times in Cuomo’s speech: “on behalf of the great Empire state,” “thank you for the great privilege,” “Today our great Democratic party,” “We would rather have laws written by the patron of this great city,” “to occupy the highest state, in the greatest State, in the greatest nation,” and, perhaps most importantly, “for love of this great nation.”

I illustrate Cuomo’s use of the word “great” to demonstrate that using “great” need not be a reductionist Faustian bargain or a capitulation to sloganeering if it is used reasonably. Cuomo believed, in ways that many Democrats have not since, that our nation was capable of being truly great. His sense of greatness was convincing not only because of the nimble way he weaved it into eloquent rhetoric, but because the modifier actually stands as a reliable measure for American opportunity. Stacked next to Cuomo, Trump’s ideas about “great” are little more than cheap fizz skimming off the beer keg.

Anyone who wishes to defeat Trump, whether as a Republican contender or the leading Democratic candidate, might wish to observe how the word “great” has struck a chord with his supporters. “Great,” which is tied in our notions of the “Great American Dream,” the “Great American Novel,” and even Great American Cookies, clearly has enough life left in it to change the course of the next eleven months. The time has come to reappropriate “great” from Trump and use it with a more meaningful greatness that wins back voters. America is too important a nation to have its notions of “greatness” be defined by a man hawking snake oil and hate. And failing that, for the cynics and the skeptics understandably tired of all these platitudes, there’s always the giddy nihilistic prospect of “great” becoming meaningless through overuse. Which would reveal Trump’s notion of “making America great again” for the shallow mantra it truly is.

2015books

The Best Books of 2015

Most my reading this year was devoted to research for several projects and to dead authors — in particular, just about everything ever written by Henry Green, a good chunk of Penelope Fitzgerald, and many volumes of the great Iris Murdoch, whose volume of letters (forthcoming in January here in the States) I will undoubtedly opine on somewhere. The nice thing about the dead is that you never have to worry about their social media presence, much less being that hip kid on Twitter being the first to skim through a status galley that nobody will give a toss about in six months. But I did squeeze in some time for contemporary titles and what follows is a list of exceedingly worthwhile books that greatly moved me and are very much worth your time:

binarystarSarah Gerard, Binary Star: Among many deceptively slim volumes published this year containing great wisdom about consciousness and interconnectedness, Gerard’s road trip saga was a standout. The couple at the center of this often fierce, sometimes breezy, sometimes heartbreaking novel is a woman who suffers from aneroxia and a man who is an alcoholic. The juxtaposition of rocket imagery and the nameless anorexic woman’s physical erosion from rapid weight loss finds a painful cadence with clipped sentences and a dialectic involving vegan anarchism. One reads this book, wondering if we are living in a world of disorders, or whether judgment itself may be causing us to see disorders. The book’s epigraph to Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life hints further at the nature of this perceptual manipulation and one is left wondering what “irreducible core of creativity” that the main character may find. Perhaps it’s not meant to be glimpsed. This woman is, after all, becoming quite blind herself. Perhaps all we have left, wherever we are, is in the stars.

fateandfuriesLauren Groff, Fate and Furies: I was late to the party, but I’m so glad I took the plunge. This is an extremely well-observed portrait of a marriage built on a mirage. Groff expertly disguises the rapid-fire courtship of Lotto and Mathilde with a fusillade of college friends who live and disappear and reemerge as the couple enters middle age. That Groff has made the troubled husband a middling playwright and submerged this harrowing man in famous Greek classics (including a riff on Antigone) attests to the time-honored theater that humans have been encasing their relationships in for time immemorial. Almost serving as counterpoint to Mark Z. Danielewski’s respectable two volumes of The Familiar, Groff has also included a mysterious commentator within the narrative who offers bracketed asides. As painful as this novel can be to read for anyone who has been through a very long and sour relationship predicated on lies (or who has to watch a friend going through something like this), the sorrow nevertheless beckons the reader to summon more honesty, openness, and communication in real life. And for that reminder alone, Groff has emerged as a writer whose every future volume I will read upon publication.

speakhallLouisa Hall, Speak: Could human beings become addicted to robots? Why not? We walk the streets staring down at our phones, saturating our Instagram accounts with relentless photos, and logging every sordid detail about our lives on social media. Suppose that level of addiction had a conscience attached to it. And suppose it was modeled on the diary of a 17th century woman. Suppose further that an ELIZA-like program was somehow an AI missing link between the diary and the robots and that Alan Turing, just on the throes of being subjected to DES and its accompanying gynecomastia by a frightened homophobic government, was involved. You begin to have some inkling of what Hall’s ever thoughtful novel, which is brave enough to explore how our seduction to technology and its many byproducts may just be dwarfing the more important seduction of real life.

markandvoidPaul Murray, The Mark and the Void: Some critics have accused Murray of tackling too much in this hilarious, insightful, and often poignant book — almost as if the comic novel is not permitted ambition in our increasingly intolerant age. But Murray’s talent has sharpened considerably since Skippy Dies and we are all the richer for it. This penetrating tale involves a writer named Paul who asks a banker named Claude if he can follow him for a novel Paul’s writing about the Everyman. Paul, of course, has another ill-fated plan up his sleeve, one I don’t have it in my heart to give away. I’ll just say that Murray’s many twists and turns lend this book a kind of madcap momentum that, even before we’re aware of it, leads us into very heartfelt questions about what it is to be human at a moment in history in which banks resort to the most sinister plans imaginable (including building a golf course on an island fated to be flooded from climate change, under the theory that the investors can win back their investment from an insurance payout). What makes Murray such a great writer is the way he keeps his cleverness close to his chest. He is more interested in winning over readers, whoever they may be, by appealing to many brows, whether it be a Rothko-like painting that hangs in a rich man’s study or a sloppy low comedy Russian accomplice named Igor. This novel is a gripping portrait on what may be happening to our world as we surrender our invention and curiosity. At one point, an interoffice memo reading “All that glitters is not gold” is distributed throughout the bank. Not a single employee remembers this as a Shakespeare quote — indeed, a quote from one of the Bard’s most infamous plays about usury — but all take this “mantra” quite literally as a strategy to act on. Yet for all this, Murray never ridicules his subjects, which aligns this book with John P. Marquand’s underrated novel, Point of No Return (also about a banker). This novel is so terrific that I’m willing to suggest that Paul Murray may be our best shot at an Evelyn Waugh (albeit a kinder one) for the 21st century.

seedcolleectors2Scarlett Thomas, The Seed Collectors: As I wrote about this novel’s considerable achievements in September:

The Seed Collectors is holding up a very large mirror to the Quantified Self movement, whereby everything we do in this world creates data, collected and hawked and redistributed in ways that are not necessarily compatible with our complex feelings. The above passage, a glorious pisstake on gamification, sees Ollie, a man who Bryony is considering sleeping with, at the mercy of an Oral B Triumph SmartGuide, an alarmingly horrific (and quite real) device that demands its practitioners to brush teeth in highly specific ways, with emoticons rewarding a commonplace activity with Candy Crush-style perdition. Even a monstrous man named Charlie, who is introduced sexually violating a blind date before the thirty page mark (perhaps another reason why American houses lack the spine to publish this book), is someone who clings to a list of attributes that he’d like to see in “my perfect girlfriend.” And if quantification is the deadly condition uniting all these characters, then how do these disparate characters live? As the novel progresses, Thomas introduces a great deal of dialogue in which the speakers are never identified. And this missing data, so to speak, steers the reader towards an emotional intuition well outside any data subset. And as Thomas serves up more twists and revelations, we come to understand that it is still possible in our age of unmitigated surveillance to be attuned to our private thoughts (though for how long?). The novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along. And this unanticipated alignment between fiction and our data-plagued world feels more artful and poignant than such conceptual stunts as writing a short story composed entirely of tweets. It makes The Seed Collectors almost a cousin to Louisa Hall’s recent novel, the quite wonderful Speak, which used a computer algorithm to determine which of its five perspectives would be on deck next. But even if you don’t want to play this game of six-dimensional chess, The Seed Collectors still works as a sprightly narrative on its own terms, at times reading like an Iris Murdoch novel written for our time and beyond.

alittlelifeHanya Yanagahira, A Little Life: Nasty little men like Daniel Mendelsohn, a vicious narcissistic troll with a small penis (or so a source informed me; take it for what it is; this is a blind item I have no wish to corroborate), have no real understanding of trauma or pain or abuse, much less the painstaking empathy that friends and family must expend in helping the victim out of a self-perpetuating abyss. Thus, this critic is ill-equipped (in more ways that one) to speak of the relentless cycle of violence and vitriol that victims of abuse must not only live with, but often eke out to the people who love them. A Little Life is not a “woman’s novel.” It is a first-rate novel, independent of that belittling sobriquet, that dares to explore the uncomfortable interior of the ineffable in ways that misogynist novels like Jonathan Franzen’s Purity lack the honesty or the heart to broach. Its central character, Jude, is brilliant in all the right ways and scarred in all the wrong ones. While the prose does lean on a dismaying magazine shorthand, Yanagahira’s truths hit hard enough to overturn this stylistic cavil. “We didn’t know how to help him because we lacked the imagination needed to diagnose the problems,” a sentiment uttered by one of Jude’s friends, may sound trite to a heartless snob like Mendelsohn, but it is an especially succinct expression of America’s relationship to the afflicted. The book covers many years, often far into the future, and smartly avoids mentioning any current events. And that is because the problem of abuse needs to be isolated and examined at length, especially as we see its terrible culmination in the many mass shootings that have riddled our nation this year. As a victim of abuse, I cried tears of recognition when Jude allowed a man to assault and abuse him. For there was a time in my twenties when I allowed a lover into my life who did something quite similar. It took me years to recognize the threads that led back to an earlier life in which my very parents physically and emotionally abused me. And while I am now doing very well and am now the happiest I have been in years, I am ever on the alert for any small misstep that could send me even a few feet away from the self-destructive pit. Because as tough and as resilient and as seemingly well-adjusted as we survivors are, there’s always a chance. So Yanagahira’s novel almost served as exposure therapy, especially since I was down and out when I read it. For anyone fortunate enough to never experience abuse, I urge you to read A Little Life. Its worldview is far from “little,” unless you’re a small-minded hyperbolic attention whore paid to bray sociopathic sentences on command in one of the literary world’s declining institutions.

But if my plaudits aren’t enough to sell you on A Little Life, I should also point out that the only reason A Little Life is not pictured among the books in the header image is because, months ago, someone who had spent the night at my apartment and heard me rave about it happened to pilfer it.