The Yeats-Auden-Amis-Updike Eulogy Connection

Martin Amis concludes his memorial assessment of John Updike in The Guardian (UK) with the sentence, "This is a very cold day for literature," doubtless a deliberate echo of W.H. Auden's great poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," written almost exactly 70 Januarys ago, in which the line, "The day of his death was a dark cold day," is repeated twice.

Life imitating poetry:  On the morning of January 27th, 2009, the temperature in Danvers, Mass. registered in the low teens, peaked at 46.8-F, and sank below 20-F by midnight.  An even stranger coincidence with the poem, given Auden's reference to wolves in the second stanza, is the existence of a wolf sanctuary in nearby Ipswich.  I would say Updike's witches conjured it, but I've been there on a field trip with a bunch of fifth-graders.  My gardening coincidence with Ipswich is Completely Clematis, a truly unique nursery crawling in vines and Corgis (sadly my forays there never yielded any glimpses of Updike).

Although Updike's uniqueness resided more in prose than in verse, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" is uncannily appropriate, for the novelist-Updike did indeed:

sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

Since some of the remembrances of Updike have tended toward the sticky and the chummy, and because poetry always delivers the most satisfying eulogy, I suggest taking Amis's nod all the way to the wintry bracing language of Auden's panegyric (I've always wanted to use that word in a blog).  Listen to "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" read by the poet in his own nasally unsentimental voice, and marvel at how many specific lines apply to John Updike (audio is sampled from the Voices of the Poet CD series, and is clickable from the Auden Society site's Recordings page:  click on the poem title under "Readings by Auden").

The poem's text is on poets.org.  See particularly the third stanza, with the line, "Silence invaded the suburbs."  Literature doesn't get more uncanny than that.

(William Safire once sought some stanzas Auden excised from Part III in the 1960s (scroll down);  those who are curious can read them on this other blog.  I think Auden was right to cut them, but heigh-ho, even his cuttings were pretty damn good.)


Updike Aloud: The Late Podcasts

John Updike (1932-2009) was such an enormous presence in 20th century American letters it's hard to imagine him silenced after 76 years--he should have lived at least as long as Saul Bellow (90 years).  But of course he isn't silenced, because we have his written works, and thanks to The New York Times, we also have two late recordings.  His spoken language flows as smoothly as his prose and has the (listening) virtue of being less ornate.  The most comprehensive portrait emerges in a career-encompassing "Times Talks" podcast (also on iTunes) with Chip McGrath, writer-at-large for the NYT.  There's also a short video with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the NYT Sunday Book Review, in which a dapper and genial Updike avows his allegiance to Barack Obama and discusses Rabbit's hypothetical political views for this era.  (How gratifying that Updike lived to see Obama elected.)

My friend Alex only recently recommended the "Times Talks" podcast to me, saying that in this conversation Updike was "forthcoming, honest, generous, large-visioned, and funny."  What a great oral legacy.

Updike was also captured on audio in 2006 by Edward Champion on his Bat Segundo Show (Episode #50).  Don't be misled by the irreverent title--it's a very thoughtful interview.  The premise is Updike's novel The Terrorist, and Champion wields it deftly to draw Updike out on deeper literary and socio-political topics, including, of course, the literary depiction of sex, which Updike refers to at one point as "the love state."

Here are the links:

Podcast:  "Times Talks" Conversation between John Updike and Charles McGrath, Released 12/10/08 and recorded in October 2008 (I believe), 1:27:45.  A biography in 90 minutes. Available from the NYT's site (about ten listings down from the top as of this posting) or on iTunes:  Search iTunes Store for keywords "Times Talks," then click on feed arrow just after TimesTalks, and when you get the list scroll down to Episode 1 with the date 12/10/08.

Video:  A Conversation between John Updike and Sam Tanenhaus, October 2008, 4:26, available for viewing on the NYT video site.

Podcast:  The New Yorker has a "Remembering Updike" section with a podcast of David Remnick talking with Updike about his earliest days at the magazine, recorded at the 2005 New Yorker Festival (about an hour long, available for listening or download at the Book Bench site).  There are also reminiscences by other NYer fiction writers.

Podcast:  Bat Segundo Show #50, 7/14/06, 1:01:36.  Edward Champion interviews Updike about The Terrorist and alchemizes a broader conversation.  Racy alert:  not for listening to around young children, or bosses.

Podcast:  Updike's Speech at Book Expo America, 5/26/06, 19:51.  A paean to the bookstores of his youth, and a controversial commentary on author marketing trends and the future destructiveness of digitally chopped and blended text.

 The BBC News site also has a page of nice quotes from Updike (not a podcast).


New York Times Book Reviewers Talk Shop and Netherland

The latest New York Times Sunday Book Review podcast is culled from a book-reviewing panel discussion at the Barnes & Noble Tribeca store on 1/21/09.  The podcast version contains no references to the closing of book sections or the financial distress of newspapers anywhere (I haven't had time to listen to the untrimmed online version).  I'm all for this ostrichy attitude, because I rely on newspaper book reviews to help me refine my list of wanna-reads.

Podcast host Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the NYTBR, begins with a cricket- and plaudit-filled chat with Netherland author Joseph O'Neill, and then talks shop with reviewers Dwight Garner (daily NYT reviewer) and Leisl Schillinger (NYTBR Sunday contributor).  The 15-minute podcast and the longer uncut event (39 minutes) are available at the NYT's Paper Cuts blog;  the podcast is also downloadable at iTunes (keywords: book review tanenhaus).  Spoiler alert:  if you want to listen with unprepped ears, don't read any more of this post.

Batting Away the Easy Sentence
At Minute 3:50 O'Neill says it took years to write Netherland (one of the NYTBR's 10 Best Books of 2008) and describes trying to "resist the sentence which suggested itself immediately, and resist the sentiment which suggested itself," an interestingly contrarian approach to composition.  Reviewers such as Michiko Kakutani of the NYT have noted echoes of The Great Gatsby in Netherland, which Kakutani assumes are deliberate.  So perhaps O'Neill wanted to achieve those echoes with highly original prose, or confine them to the lyrical moments in his novel.

If I'd known about O'Neill's resistance technique when I read Netherland I might have enjoyed it less, always wondering what the suggested sentence would have been.  Resisting the easy sentence can become too uneasy, as when O'Neill writes, "The lobby was crowded with hotel residents human and canine," (p. 111; no echo of Fitzgerald in that), but in other cases it yields just enough fresh vivacity to perk up your ears:  "From time to time a chorus of barking broke out and the dog owners would look down and themselves bark reprimands in unison" (also p.111).  Occasionally O'Neill's un-obvious writing moved me quite far without getting overly aesthetic, as in these sentences about an album of photos: "...it also documented my son's never-ending, never truly acceptable self-cancellation.  In the space of a few pages his winter self was crossed out by his summer self which in turn was crossed out by his next self" (p. 235).  Original and poignant.  If you want to listen in on a tenacious book club discussion of Netherland, Slate's Audio Book Club podcast of 7/15/08 (45 minutes) is quite good (on iTunes use keywords:  Slate's Audio Book Club;  then look for date).  They also discussed The Great Gatsby on 11/24/08.

To Review or Not To Review
A refreshingly candid conversation about book reviewing begins around Minute 6.  Dwight Garner speaks about the necessity of making brisk judgments when choosing which books to assign for the NYTBR (given the multitude of books begging review, the gavel could fall as early as page 40).  Although it was against the rules to signal his opinion when assigning, he hoped the assignee would not turn in a "hapless" piece, because a poorly-written review would make even a terrific book ineligible for the cover.  Of course the mere selection of a book for review anoints it with a certain positive status.  (In a 10/6/06 Barnes & Noble "Meet the Writers" interview (available on on iTunes), Joyce Carol Oates said she doesn't review books she doesn't like.)

The Vending Machine Simile
Tanenhaus points out that favorable reviews are harder to write than critical ones (if only Michiko Kakutani had been on the panel to limn this observation!).  Garner now writes reviews instead of assigning them, and at Minute 12:30 he likens his three-step writing process to "trying to push over a candy machine"--surely a first in book-reviewing similes.

Generous, Voracious, and Prolific
Leisl Schillinger, bless her generous reader's heart, opens every one of the 20-40 supplicants that arrive unbidden on her doorstep every week, and says, "I literally feel the responsibility to see if I think I can write about them" (Minute 11:30).  Some lucky ones have made it through to the NYBR.  Tanenhaus and Schillinger also discuss the fine art of quoting in book reviews.  Schillinger's method of noting text and themes made me think of the Kindle and the Sony Reader--perhaps ideal tools for a reviewer's searching and annotation (and also perhaps too expensive).  Since book reviewers are an endangered species these days, they're unlikely to boost the ipso-presto! numbers floated by e-book reader marketers.


Rabbie Burns, 250-Year-Old Scottish Bard, Blasts the Web on His Birthday

For pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white--then melts forever;
Robert Burns, "Tam O' Shanter," 1791

Robert Burns, Bard of Scotland, would be 250 this January 25th.  Sadly, he suffered from poor health and poorer health care and didn't make it past 37.  Luckily for us he was an early and prolific bloomer.  In his lifetime he wrote over 300 poems and songs, ranging from the passionate ("A Red, Red Rose") to the picaresque ("Tam O' Shanter") to the political ("A Man's A Man for A' That").  The amber liquid gets a fair amount of poetic celebration, too.  Finally, there's that obscure little ditty--"Auld Lang Syne"--which, like many of his songs, lived a shaggy highland existence before Burns massaged it into the caterwauling croon of year-end sentimentalists the world over.

Burns lived most of his life in the Ayrshire region, penning poems in odd moments and odd places (including some lines reputedly scratched on a window pane).  He never quite made a living as a ploughman or a taxman, let alone as a poet, but his inspirations--bonny lasses, man's inhumanity to man, and the plight of wee beasties--kept him writing to the end.  He fathered twelve bairns by four mothers, seven of them illegitimate.  Only six of his children lived to adulthood.

Listen to Burns in an Authentic Accent
Andrew O'Hagan, a more recent son of Ayrshire, and a prominent journalist and novelist, has edited the Bard's massive oeuvre down to 40 must-enjoys and given the book the pub-worthy title, A Night Out With Burns: The Greatest Poems.  Last year, on the occasion of Rabbie's 249th, O'Hagan read three of the 40 aloud in an interview with Nell Boase for The Guardian (UK) Books Podcast.  His reading of Burns' last love poem, "O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast," is particularly affecting, and its language is quite understandable, even to the American ear.  I can no longer find the O'Hagan podcast on iTunes, but you can download it or listen from the Guardian's site by clicking here. (Highly recommend listening to this now!)

For enhanced comprehension, you can read along with O'Hagan from the texts at the site Burns Country: Complete Works (specific poem links below).  The site helpfully makes the trickiest words in Scottish dialect clickable for translation into multiple languages (though you can also just listen and enjoy the sounds and tempo):

(The gist of this is:  "I'll keep you warm, my love.")

(In which Burns trumpets the nutritional superiority of haggis, and disses foreign fare.  Contains the catch-phrase, "deil [devil] take the hindmost.")

(Inspired by Burns wrecking a mouse nest when plowing in winter, when there's no more "foggage green" to repair it.  O'Hagan explicates the politics of this one nicely, after he recites it.  Be forewarned--in Ayrshire "mouse" sounds like "moose."  This poem is the source of Steinbeck's novel title, Of Mice and Men.)

Bard-o-Mania Online from BBC Scotland
Eventually, almost all of the poet's work will be recorded by assorted Scottish-ish luminaries and available for free, on iTunes, from BBC Scotland's "Completely Burns" podcast site (type "BBC Scotland Completely Burns" into the search box on the iTunes store).  There are a few poems up there already.  The BBC Scotland website has the text of the same works available online, with photos of the poem performers, including Prince Charles and Brian Cox--but, hold on:  apparently the online versions will not play for surfers who arrive at the site from un-British locations.  When I clicked repeatedly on the play button, hoping to hear Prince Charles proclaim, "My heart's in the highlands, a-chasing the deer," a little black box popped up and informed me that the recording is "Not available in your area."  Yet other Burns recordings from BBC Scotland are indiscriminately trickling into my iTunes area!  Perhaps we foreigners are denied the instant online "Listen to the Prince" button because we don't pay the annual BBC license fee--the mandatory tithe which gives the Beeb's listeners truly ad-free radio without the pain of making their broadcasters beg for coffee-cost donations every three months.

My suggestion is to subscribe to the "Completely Burns" feed on iTunes, which will give you the opportunity to download the poems as they get podcasted over the next year, perhaps even His royal readings.  Then you can listen and read along with the text from the Burns Country site, with its helpful translation-clicks.

Feed it and Tweet
Other Burns-feeding options (the Scots are going crazy!) include a blog of Burns' letters posted on the day they were originally written, and the National Trust for Scotland's ayreshirebard Twitter.  (Info page includes a tidy explanation of how to sign up for Twitter.)

Burns Suppers
What's a birthday without a party?  A Burns [Birthday] Supper features as much sipping as supping, and requires designated drivers.  The format can include a parade of the steaming, jiggling haggis before you set it on the table and stab it (don't ask what it's made of, unless you really want to know), plus traditional Scottish dishes like neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), interspersed with recitations of Burns' poems and bits of biography, sloshed with whisky and ribald innuendo wherever possible.  I've done several (though I chicken out and make a veggie haggis), and they can be quite fun, if you assign some of the readings to guests (best to share the texts in advance, perhaps with podcast links for pronunciation's sake).  Or you could cue up your iPod with some amplification.  Here are some sites with Burns Supper instructions--just remember, it's a like a wedding:  you should only pick the parts that really appeal to you, or you'll end up in a Burnzilla Stupor.


Skin, Status, & Sisterhood in Madagascar

If you want to bask in some fictional balminess as you trudge through winter winds or shovel gloppy slush, I recommend Andrea Lee's short story, "Brothers and Sisters Around the World," published in The New Yorker in 2000 and recently recorded by Gary Shteyngart for the magazine's October 2008 fiction podcast (also downloadable from iTunes).  Lee's sophisticated ex-pat stories can seem overly focussed on the luxe life, but this one's destination is a gecko-infested villa on a paradisiacal island off Madagascar, and uses the narrator's race to bring about an unusual human exchange between haute touriste and local citizen.  In "Brothers and Sisters Around the World," skin color and the beach are big levelers.  (Or they provide yet another forum in which class trumps race--judge for yourself the sisterhood plus noblesse oblige ending.)

To read this first-person story aloud, Shteyngart must lend his voice to the short-lived efficacy of leg waxing in the tropics, and to describing various bikini-adjusting maneuvers (the mind boggles), but never mind:  Lee's language is so precise, and the narrator's observations of beach society are so wide-lensed, that the story survives--nay, transcends--the incongruity of a Euro-living yummy mummy's holiday being recounted by a male whose American accent gargles with vodka.  It helps that "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" is already stacked with hyphenated ethnicity.  The narrator is an African-American ex-model, her husband is a French-Italian ad-man, and their 4-year-old son is dubbed "le bébé métis" (the mixed baby) by the locals, whose own origins represent more than one continent.   The narrator is hyper-aware that her skin color makes the women particularly curious about her:  she says that she looks "not unlike one of them," but she "dresses and speaks and acts like a foreign madame, and is clearly married to the white man, not just a casual concubine."  Two young Madagascan women take up surveillance under a mango tree near the house.  They stare, and midly heckle the wife, and eventually they cadge a braless excursion in in Le Zodiac from le husband.  Ce sont si compliquées, les vacances à l'étranger.

In addition to giving off tropical heat, "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" offers chewy descriptions:  a "rump-sprung" Citroën, coral that grows "in big pastel poufs," "lobster magnificently broiled in vanilla sauce."  There's a generous cast of vivid characters, and an odd retrospective interlude set in Indonesia (Michel, the husband, is a tropaholic).  You never feel confined by the first-person POV, because the narrator spends so much time looking outward.  Lee also juxtaposes high/low language to punchy effect:  a sentence that contains the phrase "the labyrinth of his Roman Catholic mind" is followed immediately by one that ends with a reference to "a pair of African sluts."

Extra credit:  the subtheme of Western T-shirts as gratuities.

I heard Lee read this story live at the launch of the W.E.B. DuBois Black Writers Reading series at Harvard in 2003 (recordings of the event, which also featured Jamaica Kincaid, are available for online viewing and listening at WGBH's Forum Free Lectures site;  go to Minute 53 if you want to skip right to "Brothers and Sisters Around the World").  Lee reads her story with humor, and her pronunciation of the sprinkling of French is supérieure to Shteyngart's, but I think I actually prefer the Slavic version.  His voice strides along with more confidence, emphasizing consonants with a staccato energy that makes the narrator's one outrageous act more credible (and resonant in the ear).  Shteyngart's assertive style fits the narrator better:  a woman who vigilantly monitors social status, breast deployment, male posturing, and intra-female power-plays;  a wife who confides early in the story that her husband "doesn't seem to see that what gives strength to the spine of an American black woman, however exotic she appears, is a steely Protestant core" (Minute 6:15 in the NYer podcast).  Besides, I adore the way Shteyngart purses his way through the word "pareu" (French for "sarong"--picture a painting by Gaugin).

I realize that my preference for this secondary recording goes against my statement in the previous post about an author's actual voice adding more "body" to the text.  To which I m'excuse:  Vive la paradoxe du blog.

The New Yorker podcast also includes a short but simpatico discussion of Lee's work between Shteyngart and Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman.

If you're curious about whether Lee has ever acted "on instinct and on target" in the same way as the heroine in this story, or if she has ever organized the rather outré treat another narrator gives her husband in Lee's story "The Birthday Present" (abstract only, but it is also collected in Interesting Women), you can read her answers online (spoiler alert!) in this interview (scroll to the very last question).

Whether you agree with the title's assertion of "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" or not, this story is sure to warm you up, with either indignation, fellow-feeling, or vacation-envy.

The Curiosity of Sisters, Gary Shteyngart reads Andrea Lee's "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" and discusses it with Deborah Treisman, New Yorker: Fiction, 10.9.08, 33:36
Available on iTunes or from The New Yorker Fiction Podcast Archive

Audio and Video of Andrea Lee reading "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" on WGBH Forum Free Lectures, 2.5.2003 (With Jamaica Kincaid;  total length is 1:34:05, story begins at Minute 53)


Yee's Novel Promo of Hong Kong's Beaches

In one of those coincidences that should have made kismet, I happened upon the Yaddocast (Episode 8) about Janice Y. K. Yee's 2002 stay at Yaddo on the same day that The New York Times Sunday Book Review published a review of her debut novel, The Piano Teacher.  In spite my dislike for copycat titles (it's not like Elfriede Jelinek's wasn't a significant book!--surely they could have come up with something else?) there were several elements that made me think that the novel might suit my book club:  the Hong Kong setting (we like to voyage through reading), the 1950s/1940s timeframe (including the Japanese invasion, about which we collectively probably know less than a thimbleful), and that book club bull's eye:  a lover with a complex past.  Plus it's not too long (one of my bookclub members tries to keep us to 300-pagers).

So, Viking, you've got potential sale here, to a 9-member book club whose word-of-mouth influences other book clubs across the country.  I'm sniffing around the buzz, but I just need a little more to push me to pick it up in a bookstore or check out reader reviews online, and the NYT Book Review hasn't quite done it.

Proxy, and More Proxy
I go to Yaddo's podcast, the only one I can find about Lee (that I found it at all was an accident).  An unidentified male speaker (never named in the audio itself) recites the author's bio:  born in Hong Kong, Harvard grad, magazine career in NYC, and baby and novel gestated at Yaddo.  Yee sounds like she'd make an interesting live inteviewee, but all we get are some old interview quotes read by the guy.  There's some puffery about Yaddo's impressive first-novel fecundity (Capote, Highsmith, O'Connor, Eugenides), and then at Minute 4 another guy reads an excerpt from Yee's book which he demarcates by saying "quote" and "endquote."  It's all a bit remote and stuffy.  I know the Yaddocast budget is probably modest, but couldn't they at least get the author on the phone?

Next stop is Powells.com to skim some reviews, and I'm shocked to find a YouTube video of Yee embedded on the book's page!  She sets up the book with b&w photos of 1940s Hong Kong and several pretty junks, and talks to us from what looks like home and current touristy backdrops.  Not exactly what I was looking for (my favorite author interviews are more like Barnes & Noble's Steve Bertrand's and KCRW's Michael Silverblatt's, where you get craft-chat mixed in with book-chat, and which I can load on my iPod and listen to whenever I get a chance).  I also have this stubborn preference for audio-only because it's more like reading--you hear a voice speaking in your head;  but I can't really complain that Viking hasn't done its job (or whoever produced the video promo), because there's the author, in her own voice, talking about her book.  So what if there's more harbor and skyline and beach than plot hints and piano lessons?

Did this sunset-soaked author promo convince me to buy?  Nope.  But I will make a point of skimming some pages next time I'm in my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

I'm not suggesting that the personality of the author should matter when you read the book, much less the author's backyard view, but sometimes hearing the voice of the author flavors how you hear the text, which is why I like podcasts.  I've had this experience with authors whose speaking and writing style are idiosyncratic, viz Junot Diaz and Anne Enright--once you've heard them speaking, their written style develops more "body" in your ear.

Yaddocast, Episode 8: [Two Men Talking About] Janice K.Y. Yee, 9.24.2008, 8:50 (also available on iTunes)
YouTube Video:  The Piano Teacher:  Janice Y. K. Lee [herself], 7.15.2008, 3:09


Sittenfeld's Vicarious Inauguration

Curtis Sittenfeld, who recently wrote an acclaimed novel about the inner life of Mrs. Bush's fictive double, is over at Slate.com writing and podcasting a novella about Patrice, a willfully single, 48-year-old African-American MBA and cable company VP who has to escort her not-favorite aunt to Washington for the inauguration.  Episodes 1-3 have already been posted for eye and ear;  Episodes 4 and 5 will be available Monday and Tuesday.  Each episode is roughly 10-12 minutes long and read by Sittenfeld herself.

I listened to Episodes 1-3 of "All Along, This Was What Was Supposed to Happen" (seven mouthfuls longer than Sittenfeld's typically terse novel titles:  i.e. Prep and American Wife) and I found myself hooked enough to be impatient for 4 & 5.  You can listen online or download MP3s from Slate, or download the episodes from Slate's Audio Book Club Podcast on iTunes (one of my favorite feeds, which also has lots of interesting hour-long book discussions to choose from).

The cons:

The serialization is sub-Dickens in terms of characterization:  much is made of Patrice's sensory aversion to port-a-potties;  Aunt Lettie, advertised as a person who "speaks her mind," doesn't actually get to say much (more about how she says it later), and when she does speak her mind, it's mostly about superficial appearance (Patrice gets complimented twice on her slenderness), or to offer a fellow-traveller a lemon square.  In Episode 3 she offers Patrice a beribboned aperçu that comes from nowhere.

Some of the how-we-live-now signifiers stick out a bit too much:  an excess of Craigslist, including the hookup ads;  gratuitous mentions of BlackBerry & a 40" flat screen tv;  a gee-whiz elderly-mit-mobile moment.

The pros:

If you can't go anywhere near DC for the inauguration, this vicarious if imagined experience is a good stopgap until the Twittering begins in earnest.  Patrice is a good observer-protagonist, and Aunt Lettie is appealingly confident, outgoing and determined.  There are moments of Obama-inspired interracial friendliness (on the train in Episode 2) and a spontaneous street celebration at Dupont Circle (Episode 3) that capture some of the giddiness of this new era.  By the time I got to the funky little cliff-hanger at the end of Episode 3, I'd bought in.

A question re:  the challenge of writing about characters whose racial experience you don't share (Sittenfeld is white).  I think this is entirely attemptable, especially in the spirit of erasing racial divisions in all directions (Yes We Can), but I also think it has to feel authentic, particularly the dialogue.  I'm not qualified to be a final arbiter on this (white, never lived in MO), but some of Aunt Lettie's dialogue sounds pre-packaged and stereotyped to me.  Do 77-year-olds from St. Louis really say "Lord have mercy" and call strangers "baby?"

Anyway I'm hoping that Aunt Lettie "speaks her mind" a lot more in Episodes 4 & 5.


Junot Diaz Distilled in 13 Minutes

Since The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally appeared, and won a National Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer, Junot Diaz has been all over the podosphere (just type "junot diaz podcast" into Google for a big selection).  Diaz junkies should listen around, as he never fails to be insightful, funny, mildly profane, and humbly impressive, expressing himself in a vibrant mix of lit lingo and street slang.  For a self-professed semi-nerd, the man is indelibly cool.

If you're looking for a nice, tight interview, full of wit and some unusual geometric insights on fiction, download the 13-minute Junot Diaz interview on Barnes & Noble's "Meet the Writers" series.  Steve Bertrand does a great job of setting Diaz up to smash the following fastballs:  the writer-of-color "native informant" burden, the unapologetic use of Spanish in his work, the long publishing gap between Drown and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, how his sense of humor changes in English and Spanish, the book that had to be binned after 9/11, his eclectic reading habits, and his fate as a writer of "stories that take forever to write."

Junot Diaz on Barnes & Noble's "Meet the Writers," Recorded 9.28.2007, 13:13 (also available on iTunes--on "Meet the Writers" and filed under "J")
Minute 8: "Oh man, I don't got game like that, that's like 'Baron von Trapp game.'" (Diaz swings the bat around on this witticism super-fast, though he couldn't have seen the setup coming.)
Minute 9:  Geometric shapes in the structure of fiction.
Minute 12:  Reading speed v. writing speed.
Litagogo PodPith Score: 4/5

Diaz Me a Story
To hear Diaz read his short story, "How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)" (from Drown),  listen to "The Dating Game" on the New Yorker site or search for on iTunes in the "New Yorker: Fiction" podlist (Recorded 6.1.2007, 17:38 minutes).  The reading is bookended by a bit of discussion between Deborah Treisman and Edwidge Danticat.  Enjoy the story's tour-de-voice, and just ignore the unfortunate moments when an actress reads the minimal ____girl dialogue.  Diaz's reading is great, like Eudora Welty reading "Why I Live At the P.O."  Energy man, energy.


Zadie Smith Voices Obama

Zadie Smith recently gave "Speaking in Tongues," the 2008 Robert B. Silvers lecture at The New York Public Library.  After some quickstepping around the dilemma of writers as lecturers, she confesses that when she moved from Willesden (northwest London) to Cambridge University (where she began her astonishing debut novel, White Teeth), a voice-shift seemed necessary to become a "lettered person."  In the first half of the lecture Smith gives voice to both Eliza Doolittle's cockney patter in Pygmalion and 17-year-old Barak Obama's push-back jive as he transcribed it in Dreams From My Father.  She admires Obama's fluency in reproducing a range of other people's voices, from a black old lady on the South Side, to an Englishwoman on safari in Kenya.  In the middle of the lecture Smith delves into the tension between voice and racial authenticity.  She also discusses voice in Shakespeare, and the suppression of religious expression in 16th century England, before bringing the issue of flexible voice and perspective back to the 20th century with an arresting excerpt from a Frank O'Hara poem.  Smith loops it all the way home to November 2008, with an amusing personal anecdote of being torn between celebrating at a "lovely" election night party in New York, and the risk of taking her "silly posh English voice" (hardly!) uptown to a wilder celebration at a reggae bar in Harlem.

"Speaking in Tongues" lasts about an hour, and includes Silvers himself providing a rather gushy introduction.  The podcast is available for free on iTunes from the "Live from The New York Public Library" podlist.  (Search iTunes for "zadie speaking" and it should come up.  Sorry--I haven't been able to generate a direct link to this podcast with the current iTunes Affiliates tool.)

Major Minutes:
Minute 27:  Smith compares Obama's skill with dialogue to James Baldwin's.
Minute 42:  A piercing insight on the expression "talking down to" and race.
Minute 59:  An excerpt from O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings"
1 Hour 2 Minutes:  Smith's avows her novelist's credo: "I believe that flexibility in voice leads to flexibility in all things."
Litagogo PodPith Score:  4.5/5

If you want Zadie Smith's generous account of her novel-writing process, it's available for eyeballs only in a lecture she gave to Columbia University's Writing Program in March 2008. "That Crafty Feeling" (lecture is 100x better than title) was published in the June 2008 issue of The Believer and is available for purchase online.