41X6zxtIM4L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Virtual Memories Show #130:
Elizabeth Samet –
The Cult of Experience and the Tyranny of Relevance

“How do you learn things? How do you acquire the patience to admit when you don’t know things? I think those are really important things for an Army officer to know.”

Elizabeth D. Samet has been a professor of English at West Point since 1997. We talk about the tension between education and training at the military academy, the importance of books to soldiers and officers serving overseas, learning West Point’s unique argot, preparing her students to be unprepared, trying (and failing) to convince Robert Fagles that Hector is the moral center of the Iliad, why she doesn’t teach Henry V to plebes, how not to get caught up in the tyranny of relevance, why she balked at learning the fine art of parachuting, and more! Give it a listen!

“The question I’m endlessly fascinated with is, what do we call war and what do we call peace and can we draw these nice distinctions? It seems to me right now that we can’t.”

NOTE: The opinions Elizabeth Samet expresses in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of West Point, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

We also talk about teaching students who are both future Army officers and 18-year-old kids, how West Point and the student body changed after 9/11, her new anthology (Leadership) and her first two books (Soldier’s Heart and No Man’s Land), her house-on-fire list of books to save, her quarrel with Plato, and her adoration of Simeon’s Maigret novels. Bonus: I tell a long, awful and emotional story from last weekend (it starts around the 75:00 mark, so feel free to stop long before that).

“I have this idea about Plato: no one loves Plato who does not already think himself a guardian.”

We talk about a lot of of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!
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About our Guest

Samet_0044F PUB-Bachrach©Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (FSG). Her first book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Picador), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. Samet’s work has appeared in various publications, including the The New York Times, The New Republic, and Bloomberg View. She is also the editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, which is out this month from Norton. Samet won the 2012 Hiett Prize in the Humanities and is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a professor of English at West Point.

Credits: This episode’s music is On, Brave Old Army Team by West Point Marching Band. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Samet’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Prof. Samet by Bachrach.

look-whos-backcVirtual Memories Show LIVE:
Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld and Liesl Schillinger – Table Talk

“[Reading Mein Kampf] I expected to find something totally crazy and full of poison, so disgusting you couldn’t stand reading it. And what I found was something you could bear: sometimes pragmatic, sometimes logical. I was expecting a “wrong Hitler”, as most people in Germany would expect: a monster, yelling at the reader. Not someone it would be easy to follow. That’s what I found out: it was easy to go along with him.”

On May 6, 2015, the Goethe-Institut New York and the German Book Office brought in Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld and Liesl Schillinger to discuss “Satirical Representations of Hitler in Contemporary Culture,” and they invited me to moderate the panel! Timur Vermes’ new satiric novel, Look Who’s Back (Maclehose Press), imagines Hitler mysteriously awakening in modern Berlin and trying to make sense of the world since 1945, and prompts us to explore what it means to laugh at Hitler (and to laugh with him)! Give this live episode of the Virtual Memories Show a listen!

“If you have too many funny Hitlers, you don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of.”

The panel discusses whether Germany will ever be “normal”, the perils of using Hitler as the symbol of anything we don’t like, whether it’s okay for some ethnic groups (okay, Jews) to make fun of Nazis but not for other ethnic groups to do so, what Timur Vermes learned in the process of writing a novel in Hitler’s voice, whether Mein Kampf should be published freely in Germany, and more!

From left: me, Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld, Liesl Schillinger.
Photo © Goethe-Institut New York / Jacobia Dahm

Enjoy the conversation!

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About our Guests

The son of a German mother and a Hungarian father who fled that country in 1956. Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg in 1967. He studied history and politics and went on to become a journalist. He was written for the Abendzeitung and the Cologne Express and worked for various magazines. He has ghostwritten several books since 2009. Look Who’s Back (Maclehose Press) is his first novel. It has been translated into 42 languages and a film version will be released in Germany this fall.

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The London Independent on Sunday, and many other publications. Her recent translations include the novels Every Day, Every Hour, by Natasa Dragnic, and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century, came out in 2013.

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University. He received his B.A. in History and Judaic Studies from Brown University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in History from UCLA in 1996. His area of specialization is the history and memory of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. He has written a wide range of books, including the newly released monograph, Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015) and the forthcoming edited collection, “If Only We Had Died in Egypt!” What Ifs of Jewish History From Abraham to Zionism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). He has also written numerous articles, is a frequent contributor to the Forward newspaper, and runs the blog, The Counterfactual History Review.

Credits: This episode’s music is O Just Suppose by Ute Lemper. The conversation was recorded at the Goethe-Institut New York on what looked like wireless Shure M-58s. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of the panel (l-r): me, Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld, Liesl Schillinger – © Goethe-Institut New York / Jacobia Dahm.

sweetcoverVirtual Memories Show:
Thane Rosenbaum – Magic City

“I’m starting to think that the essays, the fiction, the long non-fiction are all coming from the same place, tapping the same resources, the same human experience, the same fears: all the things that built me, built me to write all of those things, not just one piece of it.”

Thane Rosenbaum rejoins the show to talk about his new novel, How Sweet It Is!, the debut book from the new publisher Mandel Vilar Press! We talk about Thane’s family history from the concentration camps to ’70s Miami, his path to becoming a novelist and human rights lawyer, the relative lunacy of First and Second Amendment absolutists, the allure of print, growing up in a city without a bookstore, the fate of European Jewry, and more! Give it a listen!

“There’s a marketplace of ideas, and there’s a marketplace of assholes. It turns out they’re different marketplaces.”

We also talk about balancing fiction, non-fiction and op-ed pieces, what brought Isaac Bashevis Singer to Miami, the days when publishing was a way of life, the ways the “slippery slope” argument prevents people from taking righteous positions, why I should interview Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and more! Go listen!

 

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Thane Rosenbaum is an essayist, law professor, and author of the novels, How Sweet It Is!, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and Elijah Visible. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Haaretz, Huffington Post and Daily Beast, among other national publications. He moderates an annual series of discussions on culture, world events and politics at the 92nd Street Y called The Talk Show. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the author of Payback: The Case for Revenge and The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right. He is the editor of the anthology, Law Lit: From Atticus Finch to the Practice: A Collection of Great Writing About the Law. His forthcoming book is entitled The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment.

Credits: This episode’s music is Goin’ Back to Florida by Lightnin’ Hopkins. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Rosenbaum’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Rosenbaum by me.

meyer-cover200Virtual Memories Show:
Michael Meyer – Palimpsest

“When you look at the history of northeast China, it’s all successive regimes that have tried to import their version of civilization into this area, and they’ve all failed.”

When he was a kid in Minnesota, Michael Meyer papered his walls with National Geographic maps. A Peace Corps stint in 1995 began his 20-year odyssey in China, yielding two books, true love, and a unique perspective on the world’s most populous country. We talk about his latest book, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China (Bloomsbury), life in rural China compared to suburban MN, the country’s changes in the past two decades, the flexibility of the Communist party, China’s uses and abuses of history, the tortured history of the Manchuria region, the need to explode Americans’ myths about the country and its people, our favorite jet-lag remedies, and the Chinese use of “uh” as a conversational placeholder. Give it a listen!

“China isn’t a billion-plus people marching in lockstep. Nor is it some mastermind sitting in some opulent room in Beijing and declaring, ‘Now we will do this!'”

We also get into the time the Beijing police took Michael in so he could teach them American curse-words, why it’s safe to be a writer but not to be a journalist, China’s transition from individual farms to an agribusiness model, why the time to write a book is when the book you want to read doesn’t exist, the differences in storytelling modes between Americans and Chinese, his debts to Bruce Chatwin, Pearl S. Buck, and Ian Frazier, and how tens of thousands of Jews wound up in the town of Harbin.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

16842769440_72b7202f10_nMichael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He first came to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps, and for over a decade has contributed from there to The New York Times, Time, the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Record, Reader’s Digest, Slate, Smithsonian, This American Life and many other outlets.He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, as well as residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He recently taught Literary Journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, and wrote the foreword to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, a collection of Scottish explorer John Thomson’s early images. He is a current member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, and an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches Nonfiction Writing. Michael’s new book, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, was published by Bloomsbury in February, 2015.

Credits: This episode’s music is Life in a Northern Town by Dream Academy. The conversation was recorded at the Bloomsbury offices on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Meyer by me.

sentencedVirtual Memories Show:
Clive James – Remainder

“I should have led a more balanced life, but that’s easy to say at the end of things. When you’re caught up in what you’re doing, it’s very hard to be reasonable. And art isn’t really made out being reasonable.”

Clive James was diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema several years ago, but the poet, essayist, memoirist, novelist, TV host, and charter member of the Virtual Memories Show Dream List hasn’t let his ailments silence him. We got together at his home in Cambridge in February for a wide-ranging conversation about poetry, mortality, binge-watching Veronica Mars, writing Cultural Amnesia (one of my favorite books), being Australian despite 50 years in the UK, the impact of his showbiz career — good and bad — on his literary legacy, and a lot more. We talk about his two new books — Poetry Notebook (Liveright) and Sentenced To Life (Picador, UK only) — and the ones he’s working on, and how he faced two choices after his diagnoses: “Lie back on a couch, admire myself for my achievements, and sign off; or go on as if I had forever.” Give it a listen!

“All that poetry comes in handy when you lie there, contemplating the end. The question is why: Why when your body is about to come apart, is there such appeal in reading such highly organized argument and imagery?”

Clive James on the Virtual Memories Show

We get into the role that culture plays in civilization, the future of the Middle East, his first encounter with a Jew, the books he made a priority of when he realized his time was short, why it’s okay for actors to be shallow, and how he wrote a critique of Daniel Goldhagen while dressed as a mariachi singer for a TV show in Mexico.

“It’s possible to say that if I’d just concentrated on my literary activities [instead of working on TV], I’d have had a less complicated reputation. The question never would have arisen: Is he serious enough to write seriously?”

We talked a lot of books in this one. Here’s a list:

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Born in Australia, Clive James lives in Cambridge, England. He is the author of Unreliable Memoirs; a volume of selected poems, Opal Sunset; the best-selling Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts; and the translator of The Divine Comedy by Dante. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). You can find a longer version of his bio at his site.

Credits: This episode’s music is El Cholulo by Tosca Tango Orchestra. The conversation was recorded at Mr. James’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. James by me.