A Golden Age of Podcasts

I like to say that I was listening to podcasts before they were hip (check out this post from waaay back in 2009). Maybe I don’t really think that’s true, but I have been listening to them for a long time. Word on the street is that we’re currently in a golden age of podcasts, and there’s definitely a lot to choose from.  Quality and content range from three guys celebrating their love of pencils to a multi-part GE sponsored radio play/commercial publicizing new ultrasound technology. You know podcasts have gone mainstream when even Lena Dunham has gotten into the game.

There are currently 27 different podcasts on my phone (I have a Galaxy and use the Podcast Addict app).  Some you might have heard of – five are produced by Slate, three by the BBC, and at least five are radio shows you can listen to on National Public Radio. Welcome to Nightvale and “You Must Remember This” are two projects that were conceived as podcasts and are performed as theater.  Both have received huge amounts of well-earned media attention.

What is the attraction? When you think about it podcasts appear like a step back into another golden age… of radio.  Which is a large part of their charm. The majority of the ones I listen to, while better produced than their predecessors, stay true to what’s proven to be a successful formula.  They are still, for the most part, just recorded conversations.  Usually between two and three hosts.  The limitation of the medium is precisely what makes it intimate and warm.

Here’s an updated list of a few of my favorites, all with a literary spin of course:

Book Fight!  Tom & Mike are university professors by day, underground podcasters by night (literally, they record in a basement). Book Fight! is the only podcast that regularly has me laughing out loud… I’ve completely given up listening to it at work. Whether they are discussing a book, critiquing NaNoWriMo forums, exploring the deepest darkest corners of fan fiction or breaking raccoon news – listening to these guys is like grabbing a beer with a couple of good friends.

The Longform Podcast is a series of interviews with journalists. They have recorded 177 episodes to date. Past guests include Ira Glass, Gay Talese, Alex Blumberg, Hanna Rosin, Tavi Gevinson and Malcolm Gladwell.  They’ve interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates three times.  If you have even the smallest interest in writing you should be listening to this podcast.  Not only is it interesting and entertaining, it’s a capsule education in journalism.

There’s not much to say about The Erasable Podcast other than it’s a podcast devoted to pencils. The three hosts are pencil aficionados who review different brands, critique the quality of graphite, lament off-center cores, rate the best sharpeners and erasers – to be honest, it’s a bit nuts. They’ve spent multiple episodes discussing Field Notes notebooks at great length. To date they’ve recorded 43 episodes. 43 episodes devoted entirely to the subject of pencils. I try to explain it to friends, but they stare back at me blankly.  Then they take the perfectly sharpened pencil I offer them (I now own several different varieties, as well as a schoolhouse-style hand crank sharpener and a Field Notes subscription) and wander off.

Here’s The Thing is a national public radio show hosted by Alex Baldwin. Regardless of how you feel about Baldwin as an actor or human being, he is one hell of an interviewer. He has a gift for engaging his guests in conversation, and within minutes they are laughing and joking like old friends at a cocktail party.  And it doesn’t hurt that the man has the most beautiful voice on radio. Warning: Baldwin mostly has Hollywood and TV celebrities, with the occasional NYC personality, on his show. So if you aren’t one for celebrity interviews (I’m not either) you might think Here’s The Thing isn’t for you. But you’d be wrong.

The LARB Radio Hour, hosted by Tom Lutz, Laurie Wiener & Seth Greenland reminds me of an old-style late night television show – all about books.  I think it’s the opening music.  The hosts are knowledgable, irreverent, and just generally lots of fun. Michael Silverblatt, host KCRW’s Bookworm, was a guest for two episodes.  It remains one of my favorite interviews of all time.  Silverblatt revealed that a listener called him to task for the lack of diversity amongst his guests. Not only did he acknowledge it – he promised the reader that he’d make a change. And if you listen to the show now, you realize that is exactly what he did. Lutz, Wiener & Greenland are publishing industry insiders (Lutz is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books) talking to their peers and colleagues. Their guests trust them – you can hear it in their interactions. It makes for fantastic radio.

Starting 2016 A Little Late This Year

Happy 2016!  I’ve never been a consistent reviewer and, true to form, it’s been some time since I last posted. But while I’ve been taking the last couple months off I haven’t been entirely relaxing. Completely the opposite, in fact.  I’ve been working on submissions outside of this blog – something I want to do more of in the future and which will (by necessity) change the content of the posts you’ll find here.

Are you surprised?  Does any of this sound familiar?  I’ve noticed a lot of posts lately, by some of my favorite bloggers, saying much the same thing.  Bloggers burned out by the daily grind of keeping up a blog, finding it difficult to balance their online & offline lives or just wanting to focus more on submitting their work to places that might pay. Many of these blogs, like mine, came online around 2009 – which leads me to wonder why we all seem to be feeling the same way at the same time. A case of the seven  year itch perhaps?

Displaying 20160119_064006.jpg
Emma, who has eaten so many of the books reviewed on this blog that there was really no choice but to make her a mascot.

Submitting reviews while still creating content here is obviously going to create some challenges.  My posts are still going to be about books and translations – this will remain a literary blog – so the reviews aren’t going away.  Mostly because I’ve never been much of a personal essayist. I’m not a particularly private person, it isn’t that, but my private life isn’t particularly interesting. And I really love writing reviews.  Yet there’s no denying that this blog has grown stale – probably for you as much as for me. That’s something I hope to change going forward.

If all goes as planned 2016 is going to be a busy year. And for my first official post of the New Year let’s start with Reading & Writing Goals of 2016.

I always sign up for the GoodReads Reading Challenge. Even though after 3 years of trying I still haven’t hit my goal. This year I’m going for 60 books and I’m already 3 books behind! But part of my reading goals for 2o16 is to actually spend more time reading. Doesn’t everyone feel like they have less and less time these days?  To combat the hyper-acceleration of modern life (yep, I went there!) I’m working on a major restructuring of how I live. More about that later this week.  (Here’s a hint: a certain Japanese book is part of my plan).  Back to Goodreads –  who else is taking part  in the challenge and how many books have you set as your goal? Let me know in the comments.

What’s on the reading list?  Translations, of course.  But also some non-fiction. Last year there was no plan – no rhyme or reason as to what I was reading. And I prefer to have a plan.  I was discussing the blog with a friend and she brought up a series on gardening books I did the first year of the blog.  Those are some of my favorite posts because I was able to explore a single subject in-depth.  In hindsight two factors made that series possible.  First, I wasn’t getting as many review copies back then.  More often than not the mail tends to dictate what I read now.  This isn’t a bad thing – I’m definitely NOT complaining. I’ve been introduced to authors and publishers and books from all over the world – and am hugely grateful for the education and the opportunities that have resulted.  But last year I was reading by the seat of my pants.  Which leads to the second factor – planning. Series like the one on gardening take some advance planning.  There needs to be more of that here in 2016.  The goal is that every month is going to have a unifying theme and/or focus.  Not necessarily reading books from a single country or a region for a month.  I’m thinking of more abstract ideas –  sometimes it will be a personal writing challenge I set myself, or a type of book, a specific subject or idea. I’ve got a few things planned but am always open to suggestions.

Lastly, expect more experimentation. The majority of posts on this blog have been straightforward reviews of translations.  And you’ll still find those here.  But there will also be more nonfiction, more interviews, more opinions and news pieces (I’ve become a bit obsessed with traditional journalism over the last few months)…  and maybe my version of creative writing.  We’ll see.  The real goal this year is to mix things up a little.

Random Updates: What I’m Reading, WIT Month Cometh, Summer Holiday Reading & Two Translation Awards Get Together

I’m currently enjoying The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy – a swashbuckling Alexander Dumas kind of tale translated from the French by Howard Curtis.  It’s completely charming!  The two main characters remind me quite a bit of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser.  Jerusalmy has taken what’s best about sword & sorcery fiction and moved it into a historical setting – 15th century France, Jerusalum & (perhaps, I haven’t gotten that far yet) Italy.  I’m not sure if he did it on purpose – this is where an introduction or translator’s note would be helpful – but the parallels are there all the same.

Have I mentioned lately how I wish more books included Introductions, Forwards, Afterwards & Translator’s Notes? Obviously not all at once – there wouldn’t be much room for an actual story – but any combination/variation of the above would be acceptable & is always appreciated.

August is Biblibio’s 2nd Annual Women In Translation Month  – I’m hoping to take a more active part this year and with that in mind I’ve been putting together a tentative list of books to read & review.  There was a link on Twitter this morning to the New  Yorker article “The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector” (am I the only one who is constantly thrown off by the similarity between “Lispector” and “Inspector”?)  It was written by Benjamin Moser – well, taken from an introduction Moser wrote to a New Directions collection of her work, to be exact.  Benjamin Moser also wrote a biography of Inspector Lispector (see!?).

I’m very interested in reading that biography, titled Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, despite the fact that I still need to read anything by her. A deficiency I hope to correct soon. Thanks in a large part to New Directions the English translations of her work seem to be enjoying a well-deserved moment in the California sun. And from what I’ve heard about her books she seems to belong to The Club of Fierce Women Writers – members include Marie NDiaye, Naja Marie Aidt, Yoko Ogawa, Anne Garréta, & Therese Bohman (to name a few).  Women writers who aren’t afraid to leave it all on the page.

If you’re not already planning to take part in #WITM2015 follow this link to a great post listing FAQ’s & suggestions on ways to participate.  The only real requirement is to read women writers who’ve been translated into English.  And if you’d like some recommendations (or would like to leave some recommendations) feel free to use the comments section below.

More August News:  This year we’ve scheduled our Summer Holiday for the end of August and I’m already putting together a list of books to read poolside.  A solid seven days of uninterrupted reading time – bliss!  5 books seems to be a safe, and somewhat realistic, number.  Current contenders are:

  • War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, tr. Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent
  • The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, tr. Sam Taylor
  • Decoded by Mai Jia, tr. Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne
  • A Clarice Lispector book & biography double-header
  • Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

Of course this list will change at least 12 times between now and then.  Not least because I don’t think the Viola De Grado book is going to last (i.e.- remain unread) until then.

By now everyone has heard that the Man Booker International Prize and the International Foreign Fiction Prize have joined forces… just when the Man Booker International Prize finally had a list that was actually interesting!  In my unsolicited opinion the whole thing seems like a step backwards for International & Translated Literature. The two prizes evaluated two entirely different things – the former celebrating an international author, the latter an individual book published within the same year.  Of course, now the translator will be recognized (obviously a good thing) .  And the Man Booker International Prize list is usually a huge disappointment.  But wasn’t it lovely seeing the likes of Mabanckou, Aira, Van Niekerk, Krasznahorkai, Condé & Ghosh all up for the same award in 2015?

Your thoughts?

More Updates From A BookSexy World…

Despite the infrequent updates over the last few months, the world of translation has been hopping over the past month.  So here are some random bits and bobs from the month of May.

PEN Translation Festival

I was lucky enough to get tickets to two events for the Pen World Voices Literary Festival:  The Re-Interviews of Martin Amis & Michael Stipe and Translating On the Edge, a panel sponsored by the PEN Translation Committee.  Amis & Stipe were charming, fascinating, charismatic and everything you’d expect two celebrities to be.  And the premise behind the their re-interviews, hosted by (who else?) Interview Magazine, was truly brilliant.  Three people were on the stage at a time: the interviewer, an actor playing the interviewee and the man, himself.  The actors read Amis’ & Stipe’s answers from past interviews (some dating, in Amis’ case, as far back as the 1970’s).  Giving the interviewer a chance to address his/her questions to both Amis’ & Stipe’s younger and present selves.  Amis & Stipe were then able to correct or confirm the record.

Amis was, as is to be expected, incredibly charming & erudite. Stipe was a bit less articulate – but wonderfully animated and remarkably candid. I attended with a friend and we both enjoyed ourselves immensely.  We spent the next morning recounting the entire event – virtually word for word – to her husband’s amusement over breakfast. I can only hope it will become a regular feature of the Festival.

Thanks to an email from the translator, Margaret Carson, I bought a last minute ticket to the Translating On the Edge Panel (sponsored by the PEN Translation Committee) moderated by Heather Cleary.  On the panel were three translators: Sara Khalili (Censoring of an Iranian Love Story by Shariar Mandanipour), Robyn Creswell (That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim) and Bonnie Huie (Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin).  Cleary did a wonderful job – keeping just the right balance between readings and actual discussion.  


Huie’s reading from Notes of a Crocodile, the only book of the three that I wasn’t familiar with, stood out.  Notes of a Crocodile is scheduled to be published by New York Review of Books Classics.  They also published the English translation of Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmarte.  For those of you, like me, who never heard of this incredible author: Qui Miaojin was a Taiwanese author who committed suicide in 1995 at the tragic age of 26.  She won the  China Times Literature Award for Notes of a Crocodile. The novel is considered a cult classic – in part due to the GLBT subject matter (Miaojin was openly lesbian). I wasn’t able to find a release date online, but here’s an excerpt posted on the Asian American Writers’ Workshop website.  And definitely check out the video. The entire panel was excellent – but if you’re limited for time take a moment to fast-forward to Bonnie Huie’s reading.

Women in Translation Month 2014Women In Translation Month

If you haven’t heard – Biblibio is declaring August WOMEN IN TRANSLATION MONTH.  There’s a badge for readers & bloggers who take part, a hashtag #WomenInTranslation or #WITMonth on Twitter, and a schedule of activities forthcoming. This all began in December when Biblibio crunched the numbers and realized that less than 30% of the books translated in 2013 were by women authors.  She’s continued to explore the topic – looking at specific publishers, polling readers and bloggers, and putting up  this incredible May 25th post featuring an embarrassing riches of charts and graphs. Whether or not you want to acknowledge the bias (I’ve had a hard time with it if only because it seems so ridiculous/unbelievable… and then I took the time to examine my own *blush* reading history) Biblibio makes a solid case.  Her sampling is manageable because the number of books in translation published each year is relatively small, and thanks to the database put out by Three Percent she has all the data she needs.  The numbers don’t lie.  So support the cause, people – read a female author in translation! If you love to read, if you love reading translations, it’s  an important one to bet behind.

Some Award News

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been suffering from a case of literary award fatigue. But in case you haven’t:

Best Translate Book Award went to 2x winner László Krasznahorkai with his novel Seiobo Down Below, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize went to Hassin Blasim for his novel The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright – the first Arabic novel to win the Prize

AND – the lesser known French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize went to Electrico W by Herve Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter – beating out a shortlist that included both The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry (translated by Edward Gauvin), All My Friends by Marie NDiaye (translated by Gordan Stump).

Reading Update

And here’s what I’m currently reading (as I type this, I’m embarrassed to realize that there are no women on the list):
  • Château D’Argol by Julien Gracq, translated by Louies Varèse
  • The Corpse Exhibition & Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright
  • Ten Years In the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby