How do cultural practices become established? Why do we live in the way that we do? For generations social scientists, philosophers, and even psychologists have emphasized the centrality of human rationality as the arbiter of cultural development. USC Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy Antonio Damasio suggests otherwise in his latest book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. As Professor Damasio explains to co-hosts Tom Lutz and Eric Newman, his research shows how cultural decisions, and their potential adoption across a given society, is rooted much more in feelings than previously thought. What follows is a fascinating dive into the role emotions and feelings play in all living things on earth: from us (so-called) higher primates to other animals, plants, and all the down way to micro-organisms. Suffice to say, this week's show will challenge, and possibly change, the way you understand, and feel about, the world.
At the top of the show, Sean Penn reflects on how his just-released first novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, had its roots in his effort to intervene in the 2016 presidential election. So after Trump's victory, Penn continued with Bob Honey to investigate the ways in which we're all complicit in this catastrophic outcome; and what better mode to take all that on than a Pynchonesque, Foster Wallace-inspired antic tale, an absurdist/realist fiction. Co-hosts Eric Newman and Kate Wolf don't shy away from the obvious and vexing question: why would an A-list Hollywood actor, director, and screenwriter, sure to get any project green lit, choose the written word? What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a celebrity who truly rejects celebrity culture, a person of conscience, a restless creative imagination, rooted in the American rebel tradition, hell-bent on the next inspired, giddy, revealing turn-of-phrase.
The great author reflects on a lifetime of writing, an unorthodox career, and her current work as a teacher and healer, which couldn't be more relevant for our troubled times. Under a majestic oak in Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley's beautiful backyard, Maxine Hong Kingston talks with LARB Radio's Tom Lutz and answers questions from an audience hanging on her every word. It was an evening rife with wisdom, charm, laughter, and confrontations with some of life's greatest challenges; a true celebration of literature.
In a penetrating interview, LARB Radio host Kate Wolf talks with author Francisco Cantu about his new book The Line Becomes a River, an impressionistic chronicle of his 5-year stint as an agent for the United States Border Patrol, his emotional fallout from the experience, and his reflections on the humanitarian crisis of the US-Mexico border. Cantu also offers his thoughts on the controversy that has surrounded this book, stemming from criticism from immigration rights activists; as well as his critique of Trump’s brutally wrong-headed border wall proposal.
Also, LARB Radio's Eric Newman drops in to recommend Jeffrey C Stewart’s magisterial 800-page biography The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, which transports you to the milieu of one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most influential thinkers.
Bassem Youssef, author of Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring, joins co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher to discuss what it's like to launch an entirely new genre in the Middle East - mass media political satire (modeled upon Jon Stewart's Daily Show) - and then become Egypt's most popular TV host before having to flee the country. Youssef has lost none of his wit or political insight since his days on center stage of an actual revolution; and the conversation is laden with relevance for a certain country dealing with a dangerous, wannabe-authoritarian leader. Youssef's analysis of the role of political satire during troubled times delivers a pointed lesson for all us taking solace in the wit of Colbert, Bee, SNL & Co.
Also, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, author of Call me Zebra, returns to recommend Claire Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H.; a classic of Brazilian literature from 1964. Azareen reads a stunning passage that foregrounds a central concern of all serious authors, how words fall short.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi joins co-hosts Eric Newman, Kate Wolf, and Medaya Ocher to discuss her first novel, Call Me Zebra, released to universal praise this past month. In his review for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Nathan Scott McNamara, describes how Zebra, “the precocious narrator, a self-proclaimed “connoisseur of literature,… is unvaryingly brilliant and deadpan funny… the smartest narrator you will encounter this year.” Through her travels, tragedies, romance, and voracious reading of canonical literature, this book of ideas captures the “the experience of exile, deftly threading the narrative with theory while also using theory to pull the reader in.” In conversation with Azareen, we learn about a young author ambitious enough to take all this on and produce a captivating work of literature.
Also, Giulia Sissa stops by to tell how she fell in love with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu) as a young woman and remains under its spell to this day.
LARB Radio was live at The Last Bookstore in Downtown LA this past Sunday at the Book Release Party for author Tim DeRoche's and illustrator Daniel Gonzalez's 21st century recasting of Mark Twain's American Classic: The Ballad of Huck and Miguel. Co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher facilitated the main event, a free flowing discussion with Tim and Daniel that captivated the overflow crowd with reflections on a book that, much like the original, illuminates many of the central concerns and crises of contemporary American society. Tim and Daniel explain the project's evolution: why Huck's companion Jim, a runaway slave, became Miguel an undocumented migrant; the Mississippi became the LA River; and how Los Angeles, with its limitless diversity and underappreciated nature, plays a staring role accentuated by Daniel's gorgeous prints. Once again, the searing social critique resonates because our hearts are drawn in by the battered-but-unbroken adolescent who finds on the river an older role model, something unavailable to him in "proper" society, in the person of a fellow outcast, Miguel - a human connection, as with Jim, all-but-forbidden by white America.
Also, Dan Lopez drops by to share his Olympic Fever, by recommending a book that the Winter Games inspired him to read: Barbara Demick's study of life in the world's most closed and mysterious country, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
On this Valentine's week, we celebrate jealousy! Giulia Sissa, Professor of Classics and Political Science at UCLA, joins hosts Eric, Kate, and Medaya to discuss her new book Jealousy: A Forbidden Passion; and elucidate how jealousy, though much maligned, is in fact central to our greatest desire, passionate amorous love. Sure, jealousy can hurt like hell, can be an unstoppable force of (creative) destruction; indeed, the soul-wrenching tales of Medea and Othello have universal resonance - but, as Sissa explains, jealousy is much more than fearful agony. Jealousy operates whenever we desire another, for then we are desiring to be desired by someone who is free to shun us or choose another; and that vulnerability both heightens, and is elemental to, love.
Also, our own Kate Wolf recommends Sam the Cat, a short story collection from 2001 by Matthew Klam with surprising plot twists that challenge the artifice of sexist machismo and have an uncanny resonance in the #MeToo moment.
Befitting the scope of Min Jin Lee's National Book Award-nominated novel Pachinko, this interview sweeps delightfully through a broad range of subjects - the challenges of writing a historical novel, of representing the unique pressures felt by immigrants, 20th Century Korean and Japanese relations, Presbyterian theology, fate, the dangers inherent in the American pursuit of happiness, the importance of valuing suffering and perseverance, and a show stopping meta-moment where we reflect on the possibilities of a LARB Radio interview - animated throughout by the joy and intensity that co-hosts Eric Newman, Kate Wolf, and Medaya Ocher experienced reading Min Jin Lee's masterpiece. Also, Medaya recommends Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, a biographical study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' relationship that uses this legendary, tragic, near-mythical relationship to critique the distorting operation of conventional biographies.
A couple of weeks ago, LARB hosted an event that featured science writer K.C. Cole in dialogue with Actor and Author Alan Alda to discuss the ideas that animate his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. A lifelong science-enthusiast, Alda tells how he parlayed his experience hosting a TV series produced by Scientific American into working with scientists to help them better represent their work to the public (and to each other) by teaching them improvisational acting. The results were measurable and impressive; and, if people are willing, the evidence suggests that the lessons are universally applicable, even in a country divided. Also, don't miss the exchange that starts in the 36th minute, when Alda, an outspoken feminist for decades, is asked to reflect on the current #MeToo moment - co-host Medaya Ocher described his response as "by far the most articulate, generous, and kind" description by a man of why this is a great and necessary movement.
Authors Ivy Pochoda and Galt Niederhoffer join co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher to talk about their new noir novels. Pochoda’s heralded Wonder Valley weaves a tale of striving, wayward Los Angelenos, from Skid Row through gentrifying neighborhoods and out to a New Age Desert commune; a 21st Century update of the gloom beneath LA’s glamour. Niederhoffer’s intimate Poison, a harrowing portrait of betrayal, is drawn from the author’s own experience (she accused her ex-partner of trying to murder her); which inspires a discussion about “gaslighting,” MeToo, and the need to challenge the underlying logic of patriarchy that informs these treacherous times. Also, author and avid reader Dan Lopez returns to recommend Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher.
Author and artist Myriam Gurba joins co-hosts Eric Newman and Kate Wolf for a conversation about her new book Mean, which is receiving effusive praise across the literary, art, and mainstream presses - including a glowing review from last week's guest, Jonathan Alexander, in the LA Review of Books. Billed as part True Crime Tale, part Ghost Story, part Queer coming-of-age Memoir; with all parts deformed by an epidemic of sexual assault and violence in Myriam's hometown - it sounds a perfect fit for the Zeitgeist. Only it's the opposite; as Myriam explains, her love of language is disruptive, and empowering, a lifeline that even allows her to recognize, and commune with, the ghosts haunting our souls. Indeed, as Myriam, Kate, and Eric's conversation turns to our on-going #MeToo moment, Myriam insists we cannot continue to reduce people to good or bad caricatures, our team vs the enemy; rather, we need to talk to each other, have compassion for the traumatized, and, if you're really serious about trying to do some some good, deploy the type of deep psychological insight familiar to readers and writers of literature. Also, Jonathan Alexander drops by to recommend Jay McInerney's latest novel Bright, Precious Days, the third installment of the Calloway Saga; set in NYC in-and-around the (declining) publishing industry during last decade's financial collapse through the early Obama years. Jonathan says it's top notch Mcinerney: delicious junk food for the literati, plus a front row seat for the Decline of the American Empire!
Memoirist, composition theorist, and educator Jonathan Alexander joins hosts Eric Newman and Kate Wolf to talk about his new critical memoir "Creep: a Life, a Theory, an Apology." With wit and sharpness, Alexander walks us through the definitional morass that informs our cultural accounts of the "creep" in a wide ranging discussion that shuttles from the Deep South to Hollywood to the White House. Also, author Janet Fitch return to recommend Sergei Dovlatov's The Suitcase: A Novel.
Janet Fitch, author of the legendary novel White Oleander, joins co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher to talk about her new work, The Revolutions of Marina M, which tells the story of a young woman poet coming of age in the heady, early days of the October Revolution. Fitch talks about her approach to writing such a sweeping novel, her visits to Russia before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, how she's able to represent sex so well on the page, and the importance of balancing the utopian dream with mundane reality when writing about, and living through, revolutions.
Also, Author Dan Lopez drops by to recommend Richard Lloyd Parry's Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone, which reflects on humanity's relationship to death and life while telling the story of a small town in Japan that suffered a tremendous loss of life during the March 2011 Tsunami.
Wasn't the collapse of the Soviet Union supposed to herald the dawn of a new era of unfettered freedom, liberal democracy, and the end of history? Instead Russia moved rapidly from Autocratic Socialism to Autocratic Oligarchy. Masha Gessen talks with co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher about why she chose to investigate this world-historical disappointment by talking to young people who witnessed this calamitous transition first-hand. The result is Gessen's National Book Award-nominated The Future of History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, a work of literary journalism rife with the unique insights this novel approach revealed(to which our own Soviet-born Medaya adds her memories). Gessen also reflects on what Russia's re-embracing of repression may teach us in our suddenly benighted land with an unstable leader who reveres strongmen like Putin.
Also, Essayist Garnette Cadogan returns to recommend two works by the contemporary British Author Robert MacFarlane: one for children: The Lost Words; one for adults: Landmarks - both of which exhibit how language can re-enchant our relationship to the world.
USC Professor of Physics Clifford Johnson joins LARB's Eric Newman to discuss his new work of natural philosophy The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe, which also happens to be a comic book (from MIT Press no less, move over Marvel!). Sure, the popular form is a strategy to engage a larger audience with ideas that Johnson affirms are already widely considered, just not as dull/intimidating science; but that doesn't diminish the Johnson's achievement, as a presenter of ideas, an author of vignettes, and a first-time graphic artist. Also, author Dan Lopez drops by to recommend They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hannis Willis-Abdurraqib's stunning collection of essays on contemporary music and black culture, reflected against a legendary performance of the national anthem by Marvin Gaye.
It's the question on everyone's mind: How the hell did we get here, Donald Trump's America? How did our belief in democratic ideals get warped into what Errol Morris terms the “bat shit craziness” of the Trump era? LARB's Tom Lutz talks with Morris about his brilliant new film Wormword, which debuts this week on Netflix, and how it’s tale of an army scientist’s suspicious death in 1953 relates to the current crisis of a government we feel we fundamentally can’t trust. As Morris explains, a society that builds powerful, secretive, violent institutions cannot also be an honest democracy with citizens who demand to know the truth - and what better way to deliver this message than an uncanny, six-part, binge-worthy, murder mystery. Also, John Freeman returns to recommend Solmaz Sharif's sublime book of verse, Look.
This week's LARB Radio Hour features two full length interviews, both all about conspicuous, yet mysterious, New York Jews. In the first, the celebrated documentary team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady talk about what inspired them to focus their lens on a few brave souls who decided to leave the tight knit Hasidic community in their new film One of Us, which recently debuted on Netflix. Heidi and Rachel felt these tales would reveal much about the human spirit, the vulnerability of those that challenge orthodoxy, the safety of community contrasted with dangerous thrill of freedom; and understood the commitment necessary to complete such a challenging and captivating film. In game two of our double-header, co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher are joined by Eric Lax, author of Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking. Eric explains what he sought to reveal in a book that documents the production of Allen's 2015 film Irrational Man from start to finish: a unique, quirky master-craftsman at work doing what so few get to do, make films just the way he wants. And lest the elephant in the room pass unnoticed, Eric directly addresses the charges of sexual molestation against his legendary friend.
Who are the writers pushing the boundaries of contemporary literature? How are they doing so? And where can they be found? No small matter this; as, unlike previous avant-gardes, today's are dispersed across the entire globe. Legendary editor John Freeman, of Granta fame, set out to answer these daunting questions. The result is the spectacular fourth edition of his journal Freeman's: The Future of New Writing. Twenty Nine authors made the cut. John shares his rationales for inclusion, and an abundance of enthusiasm, with co-hosts Medaya Ocher and Eric Newman. Author Garnette Cadogan, one of the 29, joined John in-studio to share his thoughts on today's cutting edge writing, the necessity of tricksters (to literature & life), and his contribution to the collection: With Nothing to Hide. Also, John Freeman wasn't about to leave the studio without singing the praises of Eka Kurniawan's gorgeous magical realist epic novel of modern Indonesia: Beauty is a Wound.
Author Liska Jacobs joins co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher to discuss her heralded first novel Catalina, narrated in vibrant prose by a young woman destined for a fall during an outing with friends to the eponymous island off the coast from LA. Echoes of Gatsby and Brett Easton Ellis abound – decadence is a blast, but can’t slay demons – but this is very much a tale of our time; as we encounter a woman stranded, her career and identity collapsing following a failed affair with a powerful boss. Liska, Eric, and Medaya reflect on the many insights Catalina provides for our post-Weinstein Crisis moment. Also, Liska recommends Chris Kraus’ Video Green, reflections on LA and the art world in the early ‘90s.
Co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher are joined by filmmaker Robin Campillo, and actors Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois - the Director and the stars, respectively, of 120 BPM, which won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival - to discuss how they captured the spirit of the Parisian chapter of one of the most dynamic and transformative social movements in recent history, ACT UP; as well as the beautiful, tragic romance at the heart of the story. A reflection of the intensity of living constantly on the precipice of death, the show doubles as a masterclass on the rigors of creating truly excellent historical cinema. Also, Nathan Englander returns to recommend two books, both of which have special appeal to dog lovers: Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey; and Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes.
Lynn Comella, author Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, joins co-hosts Eric Newman and Sarah Mesle, to discuss how a handful of Feminist entrepreneurs in the 1970s helped women in America and around the world take greater control of their own bodies and pleasure. The discussion couldn't be more timely in a month when our society is beginning to confront the patriarchal power relations that emboldens sexual predators. Vibrator Nation tells the history of women putting women's liberation in the hands of women! Also, author Dan Lopez drops by to recommend Katherine Heiny's new novel Standard Deviation.
Author Nathan Englander joins co-hosts Medaya Ocher and Eric Newman to discuss his ambitious new novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth, which is set inside the Israel/Palestine conflagration. In an energetic conversation, teeming with wit, Nathan also shares the despair he felt while living in Israel in 2000 at the collapse of the peace talks and beginning of the second intifada; and explains why he mixed the surreal and all-too-real in a work that strives to do nothing less than bring the two sides together to recognize their shared humanity, need for cooperation, and desire for peace. Also, Medaya recommends Rachel Cusk’s divinely drafted novel Outline.
This week’s show is a doubleheader. In game one, Award-winning poet & Mancunian Adam O’Riordan joins co-hosts Eric Newman and Boris Dralyuk, as well as author David Shook, to discuss the Manchester writing school, it’s partnership with LARB, the tradition of English letters in Southern California – and how to strengthen Los Angeles’ literary ties across the pond. In the nightcap, Eric, Boris, and David are joined by Amanda de la Garza, curator of an exhibit of contemporary Oaxacan murals at the Downtown LA Library entitled “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA” to discuss the powerful resonance of indigenous language, art, and tradition in an era of mass migration from Oaxaca to Los Angeles. Also, author Karen Tei Yamashita returns to recommend Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia; as well as his most recent book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present.
Artist, architect, and activist Ai Weiwei joins co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher to discuss his new feature-length film Human Flow; and the on-going global refugee crisis that it documents. The conversation weaves through matters central to 21st Century humanity: digital technology, globalization, national identity, economic inequality, climate catastrophes, demagogues, and threats to liberty - as well as more eternal themes like war, beauty, human vulnerability, and how we bear witness to the mystery of existence.