29 August 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this podcast, Chad and Tom discuss Tom’s recent article in “Publishing Perspectives” (which he wrote in response to Amazon’s infamous letter to readers, along with some thoughts on why we shop at bookstores, and Julian Gough’s Litcoin project.

Also, as mentioned at the end of the podcast, Chad and Tom will be discussing Roberto Bolaño’s “A Little Lumpen Novelita” on an episode at the end of September. If you have any thoughts, questions, or opinions about the book, Bolaño, the translation, etc., please send them to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

(You can also use that email to tell Chad and Tom that they suck, or to recommend other topics you’d like to hear on the show.)

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5 August 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast focuses on two main things: An article by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books about the sales of Knausgaard’s books, and the sale of BookLamp to Apple for an obscene amount of money. Hm.

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9 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom preview the semifinals of the World Cup of Literature (both suspect Chile will meet the US in the Championship), and then discuss “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair” and this New Yorker piece about its limited U.S. success. Also, the Penguin Cup is stupid.

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3 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Tom Roberge. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

I genuinely love the World Cup. And yet every four years I’m reminded why I haven’t picked an English Premier League team to support, why in the end I’m glad it’s over, why I have no trouble understanding some of the more salient arguments put forth by the trolls. It has nothing to do with the game itself, with the low scoring or the simplicity, but rather with the game’s on-the-field stewards: the referees. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of counter arguments suggesting that NFL and NBA refs alter games just as much as soccer refs do (looking at you, 2007 NBA Finals refs who gave the title to Wade and the Heat), but I hate that soccer officials have so much control over the outcomes of the matches. They call offsides and disallow goals. They call penalties in the box that result in PK goals that are practically foregone conclusions. They issues red cards and handicap teams. Or they miss biting incidents (there were teeth marks!) that should have, at the very least, resulted in a red card that might have given Italy the advantage it needed. Maybe I’m biased on that one.

I concede that most of the time these calls are accurate. But sometimes they aren’t, and it gets ugly. Really ugly and frustrating. Instead of the athleticism and strategy and sheer drama of the players and coaches and the action itself being front and center stage, these bad and/or pivotal calls put too much attention on the refs, and entire matches end up hinging on their decisions, which is just awful. I want the referees to fade into the background, to do their (difficult and perennially unappreciated) jobs in anonymity. I don’t want to know what they look like, or have any reason to remember their names.

Which is a way of explaining why I’m ditching the straw man I originally planned on setting up here, namely the notion that this match would be a tough one for me to judge given my employment by the publisher of César Aira and, on the other hand, my slavish devotion to the work of Michel Houellebecq. I’m ditching it because that would force you all to focus on my situation, my context, my imposed narrative. And just like it’s wrong for refs to steal the spotlight from the players, I also think it’s wrong for reviewers to (try to) steal the spotlight from writers and their books. So I’m stepping aside as much as I can and letting the books speak for themselves. It’s a bit difficult because, like in sports, a few highlights in condensed format utterly fail to convey the context in which the highlights occurred, but it’s the best I can do without outright demanding that instead of reading the notes and short selections below, you stop what you’re doing, go find a copy of the books in your local store, and read them without stopping. Wait, that’s a great idea. Go!

Still here? Alright, let’s go straight to the highlights.

* * *

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

A book about, well, a 19th century landscape painter named Johann Moritz Rugendas. Rugendas was real, as was his trip to Argentina, but what Aira describes—Rugendas being struck by lightning in the Pampas—is completely fictional.

We have to begin with a description of Rugendas’s approach to the art of landscape painting:

The artistic geographer had to capture the “physiognomy” of the landscape . . . by picking out its characteristic “physiognomic” traits . . . The precise arrangement of physiognomic elements in the picture would speak volumes to the observer’s sensibility, conveying information not in the form of isolated features but features systematically interrelated so as to be intuitively grasped: climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds . . .

Got it? It turns out to be the underlying point of the entire book, that something as seemingly benign as a landscape portrait actually speaks volumes about the history of the world and civilization.

Later on in the quasi-defense of sending a German painter to South America to document what he sees in painting, we get a taste of Aira’s tendency towards quirky scene-setting:

Travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope. One by one, the dangers and difficulties of a route that was torturous and terrifying at the best of times were transformed and left behind. And it was truly terrifying: it was hard to believe that this was a route used virtually throughout the year by travelers, mule drivers and merchants. Anyone in their right mind would have regarded it as a means of suicide. Near the watershed, at an altitude of two thousand meters, amid peaks disappearing into the clouds, rather than a way of getting from point A to point B, the path seemed to have become quite simply a away of departing from all points at once. Jagged lines, impossible angles, trees growing downwards from ceilings of rock, sheer slopes plunging into mantles of snow under a scorching sun. And shafts of rain into little yellow clouds, agates enveloped in moss, pink hawthorn. The puma, the hare and snake made up a mountain aristocracy. The horses panted, began to stumble, and it was time to stop for a rest; the mules were perpetually grumpy.

Rugendas dwelling on the value of art as compared to the rigors of historical accuracy:

The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead of a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Accord to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.

Aira is also fond of mood juxtaposition. To wit: this sentence that appears just before the lengthy, detailed description of the lightning strike:

“At least it will cool off,” he said to himself, and those trivial words marked the end of a phase in his life; with them he formulated the last coherent thought of his youth.

And here he blatantly echoes the lightning strike when describing Rugendas’s condition. I’m not what you’d call a fan of this technique:

Rugendas, who was going through a particularly critical phase, had attacks of vertigo and cerebral short-circuiting all night; he could only withstand them by taking an excessive dose of morphine, and dawn found him sleepwalking, covered in sweat, his face a jig of lightning tics, his pupils shrunk to pinpoints as if her were at the center of the sun.

A dose of quirk combined with mood juxtaposition. This is top-notch Aira:

The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid.

Lastly, a prolonged analogy (for, yet again, the art of storytelling) that I think might represent the best passage in the book.

There is analogy that, although far from perfect, may shed some light on the process of reconstruction. Imagine a brilliant police detective summarizing his investigations for the husband of the victim, the widower. Thanks to his subtle deductions he has been able to “reconstruct” how the murder was committed; he does not know the identity of murderer, but he has managed to work out everything else with an almost magical precision, as if he had seen it happen. And his interlocutor, the widower, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with what the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife.

* * *

The Map and the Territory

Another book about a painter, the completely fictional Jed Martin. In act one of his career he photographs Michelin maps and then manipulates them dramatically, earning high praise. Several years later, in act two, he paints portraits of celebrities (see below). In an interesting plot element, Michel Houellebecq is a character in his own book; he is asked (and agrees) to write the catalog essay for Martin’s biggest show.

From part one, a description—with quotes—of the critical response of Jed’s very first vernissages. Satirically pretentious and hyperbolic? As if you had to ask:

From the very first lines, he likened the point of view of the map—or of the satellite image—to that of God. ‘With that profound tranquility of the great revolutionaries,’ he wrote, ‘the artist—a man of tender age—moves away, starting with the inaugural piece by which he makes us enter his world, from that naturalist and neo-pagan vision by which our contemporaries exhaust themselves in an attempt to retrieve the image of the Absent One. Not without gallant audacity, he adopts the point of view of a god co-participating, alongside man, in the (re)construction of the world.’

Followed soon thereafter by a potential reason for the works’ popularity, also equally dismissive of a vast swath of French culture:

The growing popularity, across all of France, of cookery classes, the recent appearance of local competitions rewarding new creations in charcuterie or cheese-making, the massive and inexorable spread of hiking . . . combined to bring about this new sociological fact: for the first time in France since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the countryside had become trendy again . . . And the Michelin map, an utterly unnoticed utilitarian object, became in the space of those very weeks the privileged vehicle for initiation into what Libération was to shamelessly call the ‘magic of the terroir.’

Did you think this one was lacking in Houellebecq’s typical despair? Come on. Here you go:

Over the cheese course, Jed’s father got slightly animated and asked him about his projects. Unfortunately, this time it was Jed who risked spoiling the atmosphere, because since his last painting, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, he no longer felt much about art. He was going nowhere. There was a sort of force that carried him for a year or two but was now dissipating, crumbling, but what was the point of saying all that to his father, who could do nothing about it. To tell the truth no one could; when faced with such a confession, people could only be slightly sad. They really don’t amount to much, anyway, human relationships.

Houellebecq, a few pages after materializing in his own novel, discussing his life in Shannon, Ireland with Jed. And it’s everything you expect in the best possible way:

“The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera, there are constantly new colors, new flashes of light. I once tried to stay here the whole spring and summer and thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell. Since then, at the beginning of April, I go to Thailand and stay there until the end of August. Day starts at six and ends at six, it’s simpler, equatorial and administrative. It’s unbearable hot but the air conditioning works eel and it’s the dead season for tourists. The brothels are empty but they’re still open and that suits me fine; the service remains excellent or very good.”

“Now I have the slight impression you’re playing your own role . . .”

After the overwhelmingly positive (i.e. lucrative) response to Jed’s vernissage featuring the portraits, with the essay by Houellebecq, a discussion between Jed and his gallerist that succinctly, subtly, and perfectly describes the current state of the art market.

“In your view,” Franz went on, “In your view, which painting should’ve got the best offer?”

Jed reflected for a moment. “Maybe Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” he finally suggested.

“Exactly. It’s gone up to one and a half million euros. From an American broker, who apparently works for Jobs himself.”

“For a long time,” he continued, his voice tense, one the brink of exasperation, “For a long time, the art market has been dominated by the richest businessmen on the planet. And now, for the first time, as well as buying what is most avant-garde in the aesthetic domain, they have the opportunity to buy a painting that portrays themselves. I can’t tell you the number of proposals I’ve received, from businessmen or industrialists, who would like you to paint their portrait. We’ve returned to the time of the Ancien Régime court painting.”

Like all of Houellebecq’s novels, there is violence in The Map and the Territory. It arrives late in the book, but has an incredible impact on both the plot and tone. A description of the crime scene:

The head of the victim was intact, cut off cleanly and placed on one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace. A small pool of blood had formed on the dark green velvet. Facing him on the sofa, the head of a big black dog had also been cleanly cut off. The rest was a massacre, a senseless carnage of strips of flesh scattered across the floor. However, neither the head of the man nor that of the dog were frozen in an expression of horror, but rather one of incredulity and anger.

A passage I have to include because it left me (and, I assume, many others) exhausted and depressed. A rare instance when the context doesn’t matter:

Olga was nice, she was nice and loving, Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realized that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no more place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered. He made another coffee, which definitively dispelled the mists of sleep, then thought of leaving Olga a note. “We must think,” he wrote, before crossing that out and scribbling: “You deserve better than me.” He crossed out that sentence again, and wrote, “My father is dying,” then realized that he’d never mentioned his father to Olga, and scrunched up the paper before throwing it in the bin.

And I’ll end with this, which I think represents as much of an artist’s statement as Houellebecq is ever likely to give. Bear in mind that this is a man who loves Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy:

The question of beauty is secondary in painting: the great painters of the past were considered such when they had developed a world view that was both coherent and innovative, which means that they always painted in the same way, using the same methods and operating procedures to transform the objects of the world into pictorial ones, in a matter that was specific to them and had never been used before.

* * *

My analysis, comparing the two novels, side by side? It seems to me that in this particularly novel, Aira is writing about writing by writing about another art form, painting. He takes a good look at a specific kind of painting, at one specific painter, and at one specific incident in his life in order to spell out his extended metaphor and, ideally, see if anything else can be gleaned from the material. It’s a haphazard approach (he famously writes without aims, and doesn’t edit), and one that can be fun and occasionally transcendently beautiful, but I’m afraid it feels like what it is: narrow in scope.

Houellebecq, on the other hand, takes on big, fundamental questions about life and happiness and our fundamental need for companionship, empathy, and simple understanding. He explores the primal urge to create, and the (often horrific) affects of modern capitalism on the creators and their creations. He doesn’t peddle in metaphors; he strips events down to reveal their piercing emotional power, and, in the process, leaves the reader in that curious state of mind that the best works of art enable: the sneaking suspicion that although it seems like you’ve learned something new about humanity and yourself, you’ve also been reminded that you’ll never truly understand the world, but that asking the questions is nonetheless essential.

Final score, no contest: France 4 – Argentina 1.

——

Tom Roberge works at New Directions and loves Arjen Robben.

——

Did The Map Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


20 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom review the opening round of the World Cup of Literature and make some predictions, talk about the Amazon-Hachette kerfuffle, and discuss the awfulness of The American Outlaws and the awesomeness of a couple Wikipedia pages. (You have to listen to find out which ones.)

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6 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast we talk about the forthcoming World Cup of Literature and about some of the summer books that we’re both looking forward to reading. Almost all are translations; a few are authors you may have already heard of (Knausgaard); and others will be new to a lot of listeners. In our “Rants and Raves” section, Chad raves about a poem (?!—seriously, but it’s a really depressing one), and Tom takes down a particular aspect of the Internet.

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3 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This podcast is all about how New Directions came to publish László Krasznahorkai and how they stuck with him—a situation that resulted in back-to-back Best Translated Book Award victories . . . Also, we now have a email address for you to send all your complaints, corrections, and suggestions. Just write to us at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. So, if you have any show suggestions, or just want to tell us how much we suck, email away . . .

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25 April 14 | Chad W. Post |

OK, that’s a totally lame way to try and combine the two main topics of this week’s podcast: Gabriel García Marquez, and the awful amazingness of the NY Times Style section article on soccer’s popularity in creative circles. Our conversation ranges a bit to include other authors from “el Boom,” contemporary Spanish-language writers, and Beyond the Pampas, a GoodReads reading group focused on Latin American literature. (Currently members are reading Felisberto Hernández’s Piano Stories.) And we end with our new “Rants & Raves” segment, which allows Tom a good space to get things off his chest.

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15 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast, Tom and Chad talk about the works of British writer David Peace. Peace was part of the 2003 version of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” (along with Toby Litt, Nicola Baker, David Mitchell, Adam Thirlwell—really solid list), and is the author of nine novels, including the “Red Riding Quartet” (Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty, Nineteen Eighty-Three), the first two volumes of the uncompleted “Tokyo Trilogy” (Tokyo Year Zero and The Occupied City), two books on famous soccer figures (The Damned Utd and Red or Dead), and GB84 about the UK miners’ strike. Since Peace’s books encompass the main interests of both Tom and Chad—soccer and crime!—they each read a few different Peace books to prep for this podcast.

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21 March 14 | N. J. Furl | Comments

In this bonus mini-podcast, Chad and Tom talk about the NCAA tournament, making many definitely wrong predications in over-confident tones. Of course, depending on your level of knowledge of the NCAA tournament (pro wrestling, I think?), then you may have to choose a more sarcastic interpretation of the word “bonus.” Then, again, if the NCAA Tourney is your bag, then you’ve hit the jackpot—which is also the name of the thing that neither Tom nor Chad will hit when their brackets get ruined in week one.

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18 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is EPIC. With a minimum of digressions, we review every single book on the 2014 Best Translated Book Awards Fiction Longlist, providing descriptions, some commentary on its chances of winning, other remarks about the titles we’ve read, etc. This may be a really long episode, but it’s also one of the most informative ones we’ve done, and I’m willing to guarantee that you come away wanting to buy and read and least two of the books we talk about.

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21 February 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As an interlude in our 2013 round-up series—the Nate & Tom Movie Podcast will be coming soon—Tom and Chad decided to talk about Tom’s recent trip to L.A., where he met with Michael Silverblatt of the amazing show Bookworm, and about a couple of recent articles that have been making the rounds in social media and whatnot. Namely, we decided to talk a bit about George Packer’s Amazon article in the New Yorker and the provocatively titled “How Iowa Flattened Literature.”

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13 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is Tom Roberge’s contribution to our “Best Books of 2013” podcast. As you can see below, he’s calling bullshit on this whole “best books” thing.

Do we mind if I rant a bit? About lists and “Best of” things? I have a theory about “best of” lists, especially for things like books or movies, and even more especially for the ones we pointlessly share with each other over Facebook and whatnot, as though someone, somewhere were sitting out there thinking, “I wonder what X thinks are the most enduringly awesome books he’s read?”. My theory is that the list, the act of creating it, represents an attempt to possess that artistic endeavor, a consumable object that in reality has little to no bearing on our lives except in the most parasitic way imaginable (unless you count the money we give artists, and I suppose that’s a valid point). By compiling lists, we — or the media — are attempting to own a bit of that book or movie’s success in a small, exploitative way.

First there are the websites that endlessly publish lists. Best Books of 2013. Best Banned Books. Best Books Set in Orange County. Etc. etc. In the case of the media, the motivation is obvious: they’ve identified certain commodities that have drawing power, and want to somehow turn them into profits for themselves, and what better way to do that then to offer an opinion on said commodities, right? Well, that was what reviews were for, but now we’re too impatient to read reviews (also: bored), and at the same time the editors realized that mentioning more than one commodity in the same piece would create compounding interest. Then they took one step further and ranked these collections of name-droppings, and the need to quantify any opinions basically disappeared. Genius!

On a individual level, the motivation isn’t as slickly capitalistic. Obviously there’s simple, innocent fun in debating the best Jason Statham movie (it’s Blitz), but here, too, there’s a certain desire to “own” the commodity. But the end-goal is less monetary and more ego-driven: we want to wear our preferences like badges. Perhaps we want to show off our refined tastes, or perhaps — on the other hand — we merely want to fit in, be a member of that subculture that thinks Braveheart is the best movie ever. Facebook seems to exist for precisely these two reasons, after all, so it’s hardly a coincidence that lists predominate there and elsewhere.

I would also argue that rankings and lists, especially for artistic products, is inherently counterintuitive. Art is meant to be experienced (largely – I know this isn’t something easily defined) on the artist’s terms, NOT yours. And the mere notion of ranking a book against another that you’ve read takes that book and turns it into something you’ve experienced, not something the artist created. A crucial point, to my mind.

17 December 13 | Chad W. Post |

From the choice of the opening song—“Royals” by Lorde—to the main topic of great midwestern bookstores and Wisconsin’s beer culture, this podcast is All About Tom. And it’s fantastic. Mostly because we get to talk about a lot of great bookstores.

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1 November 13 | Chad W. Post |

On this week’s podcast, Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times joins us to discuss Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, “Bleeding Edge.” All three of us are Pynchon fans, and all three of us really like this latest book. Although, as we talk about, the fact that we experienced a lot of the cultural items Pynchon references makes this a bit odd . . . Like, Pynchon’s watched “Office Space”? He is aware of Pokemon and Beanie Babies?

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16 October 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is the first one Tom and I have recorded in almost a month. So after a bit of catching up, we talked about David Bellos’s new translation of Simenon’s “Pietr the Latvian,” the difficulties of translating “I love you” and all the swears into Japanese, and a list of “The 20 Best Books in Translation You’ve Never Read.” As is necessary, we also talked about the baseball playoffs and flowcharts.

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19 September 13 | Chad W. Post |

With Tom back from his relaxing vacation, we decided to catch up and talk about the books we read recently, including Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s mystery series, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling,” and Rafael Bernal’s “The Mongolian Conspiracy,” among others. We also talk about Amazon’s MatchBook program, making things as easy as possible for readers, and baseball. Because, baseball.

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6 August 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a hodgepodge of opinions, rants, and jokes. We talked about summer music—and our mutual dislike of Robin Thicke—“Hawthorne & Child,” my trip to Brazil, and bike thieves. And nobody talked about J.K. Rowling or her widely-known pseudonym.

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21 June 13 | Chad W. Post |

At the request of one of Tom’s friends, we tried to keep this particular podcast upbeat and cheery . . . and we sort of succeeded. Most of the podcast revolves around an interview from Publishing Perspectives that Amanda DeMarco did with German publisher Michael Krüger about the 40 years he’s spent at Hanser and what’s changed over that time. Krüger is a really interesting, brilliant guy, who doesn’t shy away from saying some controversial things, so a) this interview is interesting, and b) so is our podcast.

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7 June 13 | Chad W. Post |

This post-BookExpo America podcast (with special guest, Bromance Will/Will Evans, the man behind Deep Vellum Press) is all about the good and bad of the country’s largest trade show for publishing. Mostly, it’s a series of rants—not necessarily about the show itself, but about the crap that craps it all up. From tech-speak nonsense to Mitch “Fucking” Albom, this is one of the funniest and most fiery podcasts we’ve recorded to date.

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28 May 13 | N. J. Furl |

On this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom make fun of yet another new “social book community recommendation” website. Also, they discuss the awesomeness of a number of San Francisco bookstores (and bookstores in general), on the heels of Tom’s first trip to The City by the Bay.

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3 May 13 | N. J. Furl |

We’re back! With our newest and semi-delayed installment of the Three Percent Podcast. This week, is a two-parter. First Chad and Tom run down the list of the fiction and poetry finalist for the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards. Yes, it’s true that these were announced a couple weeks ago, but, as luck would have it, today (Friday, May 3) happens to be the big awards ceremony, which is taking place at the PEN World Voices Festival in NYC (come one, come all!). So, what better time than now to brush up on the potential winners? Then, the podcast’s main event: Chad and Tom are joined by the one-and-only Richard Nash to talk about Richard’s recent article. The title and subtitle should give you a nice teaser to their discussion: “What Is the Business of Literature?: As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.”

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10 April 13 | N. J. Furl |

What is this? The much-delayed “favorite movies of 2012” episode of the Three Percent Podcast? It is! Better late than never, right? Yes, it is. Stop disagreeing, please.

This week, Tom is joined by Nate, and they grit their teeth to discuss The Master (P. T. Anderson) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino_), after having forced one another other to finally watch the each other’s favorite movie of the year. Also on the docket are the likes of: Rust & Bone, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Moonrise Kingdom_, Argo, and, god help us, Lincoln. (And no one, at any point, talks about soccer.)

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22 March 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a bit of a hodge-podge: We start out talking about the concept of “selling used ebooks,” then Tom gets to express his admiration for Javier Marias’s new novel, “The Infatuations,” and Marias in general, and finally we talk about Houellebecq, which, as can only be expected, is controversial. Oh, and there is some talk about the NCAA Tournament. Naturally.

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18 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd and published by Knopf

This piece is by New Directions publicity and Three Percent podcaster, Tom Roberge.

When dealing with any book by French author Michel Houellebecq, it’s almost impossible to discuss the book itself, by itself, so we might as well address this whole thing right now. Yes, he seems (how can we really know, after all; his writerly persona might be precisely that: a persona) to be a bit of a, to put it nicely, antisocial curmudgeon. He seems to have little patience for the literary world and the window-dressing sort of appearances and interviews that coincide with the publication of any novel by a well-known (if not exact well-loved) author. This is, after all, a man whose mother wrote some rather disparaging things about him in her own memoir. And these are all frequent topics of discussion because his narrators, too, possess many of these characteristics. They’re often selfish, apathetic, skeptical, and downright miserable. But, and I’ve been pleading this case for years now, I believe that underneath the surface-level nihilism and general ennui of his novels is an author who truly believes in love, in human beings’ ability to make each other profoundly happy. The ability, he suggests, is within all of us, if only we’d stop worrying about the rest of the crap that defines our modern world.

Which brings us to The Map and the Territory. I’ve read and reread all of Houellebecq’s novels, and though I think The Elementary Particles is brilliant and that Platform is insanely fun, I also think this is his best book, the most accomplished in terms of pacing and plotting, the most stylistically riveting on a page-by-page basis, and the most sophisticated in terms of its themes. And boy oh boy are there a lot of them packed in here, twisted into each other, fighting for control and attacking the reader with their combined power.

Artist Jed Martin is the novel’s central conduit for Houellebecq’s exploration of these themes, and the first section of the book focuses on a series of Martin’s digital prints that are fantastic enlargements of Michelin road maps, with quite a few creative embellishments. The prints critique something that a lot of Americans living in big cities will also recognize: the middle and upper-class romanticization of rural life, of farming, of living off the land, of what they imagine is “a simpler life.” All bullshit, obviously, and not exactly news, but Houellebecq dissects the trend beautifully, mimicking and mocking the obtuse language of the art world at the same time.

But then Martin stops working. Altogether. For years. And when he re-emerges, he decides to become a portrait painter, and yet again he takes dead aim at the prevailing trends of the middle- and upper-class consumers of “intellectual” products, be they works of art or gadgets or something in between. By which I mean he paints portraits of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but puts them in an imaginary scene in which they “Discuss the Future of Information Technology,” their expressions greedy and all-knowing, larger-than-life, terrifying. He also—and this brings me back to the opening paragraph, to the notion of Houellebecq as the antisocial curmudgeon—travels to Ireland to paint a novelist, Michel Houellebecq, who has agreed, after much trepidation, to write the catalog copy for an exhibition of the portraits in exchange for a portrait of himself. This is, and excuse the pun, a stroke of genius. It allows Houellebecq (the writer of the book, as opposed to the writer/character in the book) to confront the personal attacks on his character head-on, to bring the discussion of the prevailing themes that recur in his books into this book, to offer a subtle rebuttal to everything that’s been said about him and his work in the book, rather than having to appear on television to be mocked by a pretentious journalist, or having to endure an endless interview session. “Here,” he seems to be saying, “you want to know what I think about everything that’s been said about me? This is what I think, and this is why I’ve fled to Ireland, to get the hell away from your miserable games.”

There’s also one more theme and plot element that’s thoroughly amazing, but I really don’t want to spoil anything about this book for anyone who might be compelled to read it. Let me just say that it’s both typically Houellebecq-esque and wholly surprising and, of course, provocative. And who doesn’t love being provoked?

6 March 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a look at the “25 titles on the Best Translated Book Awards Fiction Longlist.” Tom and Chad discuss each title, talking about which books they’ve read (or want to), and which ones they think will make the list of 10 Finalists.

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15 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

On this week’s podcast, we welcome National Book Critics Circle board member Carolyn Kellogg to talk about the NBCC awards, the changes to the National Book Award (which set me off on a bit of a paranoid rant), Bookish and its suckishness, and a variety of other literary topics.

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4 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following Friday’s posting of our latest podcast, I received a number of requests for the full list of books that we talked about. And thanks to Tom’s diligent pre-podcast preparation (seriously, I’m not even joking), I have that complete list—in the order in which they were discussed:

  • Javier Marias, The Infatuations
  • Jose Manuel Prieto, Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
  • Charlotte Roche, Wrecked
  • Alejandro Zambra, Ways of Going Home
  • Jacques Jouet, My Beautiful Bus
  • Juan Filloy, Faction
  • Martin Kohan, School for Patriots
  • Arnon Grunberg, Tirza
  • Zachary Karabashliev, 18% Gray (along with Anne Tenino’s 18% Gray)
  • Laszlo Krashnahorkai, Seiobo There Below
  • Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers Are at Home
  • Herman Koch, Dinner
  • David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life
  • William H. Gass, Middle C
  • Marie NDiaye, All My Friends
  • Santiago Roncagliolo, Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories
  • Yoko Ogawa, Revenge
  • Carlos Rojas, The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell
  • Mo Yan, Sandalwood Death

Nineteen books for your 2013 reading pleasure.

1 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Tom Roberge and I discuss a bunch of 2013 books that we’re excited about. Our preview includes everything from Javier Marias’s latest, to “18% Gray” (and the “faux 18% Gray”) to the new Laszlo Krashnahorkai to Yoko Ogawa’s “Revenge” and Mo Yan’s “Sandalwood Death” and, as always, is a mix of incisive literary observations and irreverence and soccer talk.

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10 December 12 | Chad W. Post |

In this week’s podcast (Tom’s last one of of the year), we discuss the translations we did (and didn’t) read from 2012, including “Maidenhair” by Mikhail Shishkin, “Satantango” by Laszlo Krashnahorkai, “Woes of the True Policeman” by Roberto Bolano, and “Necropolis” by Santiago Gamboa. This kicks off the beginning of our “best of” podcasts for this year. Next week we’ll talk about music, and in the new year, Tom will be back to discuss the best movies of 2012.

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16 November 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is focused on crime and detective books—both fiction and nonfiction. First off, we talk (i.e., Chad monologues) about Errol Morris’s “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald” and his recent Twitter fight with Joe McGinniss about this case. Then we move on to talking about Wolf Haas’s “Brenner and God” and what makes this book (and detective books in general) fun to read. Also, Tom acts grumpy.

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26 October 12 | Chad W. Post |

After a bit of a hiatus, Tom Roberge and Chad W. Post are back to discuss what we mean when we say that a book is “difficult.” They use a range of examples, from “Finnegans Wake” to “Mrs. Dalloway” to define a few different categories of reading “difficulty,” such as, not being compelled, and having to read a book like a puzzle.

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21 September 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast features special guest Kaija Straumanis to help preview the upcoming American Literary Translators Conference. Every fall, approx. 350 translators get together for three days of panels, discussions, readings, movies, and drinking. (Oh, and mechanical bull riding.)

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10 September 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast features freelance book critic Jacob Silverman, who stirred up a lot of discussion last month when Slate published his piece, “Against Enthusiasm” about “the epidemic of niceness in online book culture.” Basically, Jacob argued that online book culture has lead away from legit discussion to a series of endorsements and “+1s.” Shortly after he wrote this, William Giraldi “trashed Alex Ohlin’s recent publications” setting off “another Twitter firestorm.” And of course, the day we recorded this, Giraldi published a “long piece” explaining his beliefs about book criticism. Anyway, this week we talk about all of that . . .

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24 August 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast—the last before Tom goes off to visit the good people of Carolina—is a bit of a surprise. Tom told me he had a topic, but wanted to spring it on me and get my unprepared reaction. So, to share in the spirit of surprises, I’m not going to say anything about what we talked about, except to mention that it WASN’T about baseball or Arsenal’s post-RVP lack of firepower. It does involve Canadians, though. And the “New York Times Book Review.” Enjoy!

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3 August 12 | Chad W. Post |

I’m just back from family vacation, so this week we decided to take things easy and talk about The Dark Knight Rises (which we sort of spoil for anyone who either hasn’t seen it, or thinks it’s great), the Olympics, books we’ve read recently, and J. K. Rowling and her misguided attempt to prevent privacy of her new book.

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27 July 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Will Evans joins us to talk about contemporary Russian literature (READ THIS BOOK) and the Read Russia initiative at this year’s BEA. (Sidenote: click on that link just to see the section at the bottom left corner where you can share the page via “Socialist Media.” Seriously.) We talk about Zakhar Prilepin, Mikhail Shishkin, Dmitry Danilov (who looks a bit like Ignatius J. Reilly, see below), and Oleg Kashin.

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20 July 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast (which was actually recorded weeks ago) features Ryan Chapman of The Penguin Press, who came on with us to discuss the fun marketing campaign Penguin put on to celebrate the release of the ebook versions of all of Thomas Pynchon’s books. As usual the conversation swerves from that to discussing American literature in general, the Euro Cup (SPAIN!) and sundry odds and ends, such as making up blurbs for catalogs . . . like this and this

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15 June 12 | Chad W. Post |

In this week’s podcast, Tom and I talk about BookExpo America and its parties, in particular the rocking one that took place at the New Directions offices. I also rant (a bit) about why I didn’t get to go to Cape Town to present my speech, The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning. There’s also a bit of baseball talk related to a bet that the two of us made, and we throw out ideas for a few future podcasts.

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29 May 12 | Chad W. Post |

In this week’s podcast, Tom and I talk about two related subjects: this New Yorker article about the translation of the first line of Camus’ The Stranger, and the PEN World Voices panel about “Reviewing Translations.” (See video embedded below.) There are also some digressions, mostly involving me apologizing for all sorts of things (offending people, swearing, being silly, etc.), and baseball. Naturally.

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11 May 12 | Chad W. Post |

Tom and I were on fire during this week’s podcast, talking about the PEN World Voices Festival and some interesting questions we were asked in an interview for the Picador Book Room Tumblr. While talking about PEN WV, what is learned about a location from reading a book set there, what’s lost and/or gained in translation, we (meaning mostly me) tear into a number of things.

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10 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I answered a bunch of questions for Gabrielle Gantz and the Picador Book Room tumblr. I think this makes for a fun and interesting read, and it actually became the basis for a good part of our discussion on this week’s podcast (which will be up tomorrow).

Here’s an excerpt:

What do you look for when deciding what translated work to read next?

Chad: There are so many things that go into a decision like this. Sometimes it’s the buzz around a book,1 sometimes it’s the author (I’m currently on a Clarice Lispector kick), sometimes the translator (Bill Johnston is a translation jesus!), and sometimes it’s something totally other (Satantango has a gorgeous cover, The Safety Net is about terrorism).

Tom: I don’t necessarily look to specifically read a translation or a non-translation. I look for good books. When I do find myself choosing from among the vast array of choices, I usually gravitate to plot first, style second. Country and translator are important eventually, but first, for me at least, it has to be something I’ll enjoy reading. There was a time when I read the “difficult” books for my own edification, but I’ve since realized that there are things to be learned about human nature in a wide array of books, not just difficult ones that academics deem worthy.

Do you find that you gravitate towards a certain country because of your interest in the culture?

Chad: I read a lot of Mexican and South American books because I particularly like the aesthetic sensibility prevalent in a lot of works from down there. The aforementioned Cortazar and Lispector, but also Borges, Bioy Casares, Chejfec, Zambra, Saer, Sada, etc., etc.

Tom: In the end, I read a lot of French translations. I like their philosophers and their novelists’ tendency to draw on those philosophies. And I’m a huge French film fan, so the overall outlook on art I’m very familiar with and love. But I also read a lot of stuff from Spain and Latin America — they too seem to zero in on themes I’m drawn to.

Click here to read the full interview.

1 I actually included the example that this is why I read “the very mediocre 1Q84,” but that didn’t make the final cut. But since this book IS so very overrated, I thought I’d make a point of mentioning that in the safety of my own blog.

4 May 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast features a special discussion with Daniel Levin Becker, author of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Liteature, a history of of the Oulipo, past, present, and future. For the uninitiated, the Oulipo is a 50-year-old group of writers and mathematicians and others interested in the idea of “potential” literature. At times highly technical and esoteric in their thinking about literature, the group also has a sort of prankster streak, which comes out in the liveliness of many of their writings. Some of the most famous works produced by Oulipian writers include Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler . . ., and Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Also see: all of Raymond Queneau and Jacques Roubaud, the works of Jacques Jouet, and those of Paul Fournel.)

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27 April 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week we completely avoid talking about Amazon and the Department of Justice to focus on genre books in translation. Tom’s a big noir/thriller fan, so we talk about a number of those, but we also discuss some works of science-fiction, including XYZ.

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30 March 12 | Chad W. Post |

In this week’s podcast, we talk about the future of book reviewing, focusing on a few central questions: who reads book reviews? (A: definitely not my students), what is the function of the book review in today’s world?, is there a website/app that would be the ideal book review platform? We also digress into sports talk (as we do), with Tom explaining how he just found out about the new MLB playoff setup while I predict the winners of the Champions League quarterfinals. (A: Chelsea, Bayern Munchen, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.)

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15 March 12 | Chad W. Post |

With the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament getting underway this afternoon (I refuse to acknowledge the “First Four” games), Tom and I thought this would be a good time to talk about the fact that we both picked the exact same Final Four (Kentucky, Missouri, UNC, and Ohio State) and that The Morning News’s Tournament of Books is made up of a lot of mediocre books.

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8 March 12 | Chad W. Post |

To celebrate tonight’s announcements of the National Book Critic Circle Award winners, Tom and I decided to go through all six categories (fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, biography, criticism, and poetry) and pick out who we thought would win. Seeing that neither of us has read many of the finalists, this makes for some pretty fun times and some great digressions, like about how we’re both over WWII novels, and how “revolution” is the theme of this year’s awards.

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10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is remarkable both for its complete lack of curse words (not even kidding), and for its very professional discussion about Garth Hallberg’s recent essay Why Write Novels at All? that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. We were fortunate enough to get Garth in on this podcast so that he could expand on some of his ideas and observations about a few contemporary American novelists who tend to get lumped together: Franzen, DFW, Eugenides, Zadie Smith, etc.

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3 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast, Tom and I talk about the ABA’s Winter Institute, which just took place in New Orleans. We also go on about World Book Night, which you should volunteer for by clicking here.

We also talked about my daughter and her “letter of hate” to the awful Dan Borislow, who, “ruined our summer of fun.”



(And in my defense for encouraging her to write this, there’s no amount of 8-year-old crazy that can approximate Borislow’s 50-year-old detached from all reality crazy. Just read the emails in the link above, and keep in mind that this jag ruined women’s soccer for tens of thousands of young girls in the most egotistical, asinine fashion ever. Chloë is 100% in the right on this.)

To honor the song that conquered soccer, this week’s music is Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link.

Enjoy!

20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a run of special podcasts, we’re back to the normal Tom and Chad show . . . This week we decided to talk about books we’re looking forward to and other random predictions about 2012. (I believe that is the year we are living in. Although as you’ll hear when you listen, I have a few problems knowing what now is now.)

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23 December 11 | N. J. Furl | Comments

In this week’s podcast, we finish indulging our year-end listing proclivities by running down the best movies of 2011. Chad is absent (poor guy’s never seen a movie), but, not to worry, your comfortingly consistent host Tom Roberge is joined by Nathan Furl (of Open Letter) to set the record straight about whether you should make a silent film these days, if Nicolas Cage movies are totes the best, why no one bothered to mention Tree of Life over the course of the hour, and more.

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9 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast we learn the following: Chad is working through the five stages of grief about Albert Pujols and MSU (he is filled with ANGER); Tom doesn’t read a ton of nonfiction, but when he does, it tends to focus on all things violent (see a theme?); faux-karaoke singers on the subway might suck, but Karaoke Culture is awesome; and book people like to totally flip out at most every opportunity (we are an unstable people).

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2 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since the year is coming to an end, it seemed like the perfect time for us to start creating our “best of” lists for 2011. We decided to start with the best fiction that we read over the past year. Our list is pretty idiosyncratic, and all the titles mentioned are worth checking out.

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21 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Tom and I discuss Q.R. Markham and the plagiarism scandal surrounding his novel Assassin of Secrets. Our conversation spins outwards from the event itself, to postmodern recontextualizing, Girl Talk, addiction, and why James Frey still sucks.

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12 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast, Tom and I talk about the strange cases of books/authors that most people don’t think of as having been translated. (Not to give away too much, but we start with Haruki Murakami.) From there, we talk about which authors are most associated with particular countries, the pros and cons of shelving authors by country, and how book discovery does (and might not) work.

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28 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast centers around two things: Gerald Howard’s article in PW about the possible influence of Moneyball ideas on book publishing, and Helen DeWitt’s comments in an interview I did with her about stats in fiction.

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24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is a mixed bag of stuff. Our main focus is on book events—why from a publisher’s perspective they can be frustrating, what makes them interesting (or not), etc. But we also talk a bit about Occupy Wall Street and books that we hope are in the OWS library.

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7 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is a special two-part episode. We recorded the first half on Wednesday and speculated about who was going to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature and talked about the odd and awesome British practice of betting on the winner. The second half we recorded yesterday, after we found out that Tomas Transtromer—who is published by New Directions—was this year’s recipient of the prize.

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23 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on last week’s fall books preview, this podcast is centered around movies coming out over the next few months, in particular, movies based on books. Tom does most all of the recommending, since he’s a much bigger movie buff than I am, and his list includes movies that he’s really excited about (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and ones you might want to avoid:

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18 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is our official “Fall Books Preview,” in which we list a dozen or so books we’re really excited about, diss a few states in the union, and discuss a few strange and interesting book covers.

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2 September 11 | Chad W. Post |

Since the University of Rochester fall semester started on Wednesday, we decided that this week’s podcast would center around books that you should read in college. This includes things that should be taught in classes, some general comments on teaching the life out of literature, and why teaching literature in translation is a good idea.

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23 August 11 | Chad W. Post |

For this week’s podcast, Tom and I answered our first mailbag question about literary journals, discussed the old adage that “short stories don’t sell,” and complained about the unbeatable Milwaukee Brewers.

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29 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re finally back from our respective vacations, and back to podcasting. The big news from when we were gone was the liquidation and ultimate demise of Borders, so this week we talked about bookselling. About the fallout of Borders closing down, about the big losers, about the possibilities for the resurgence of independent bookstores, and about ordering books on Esperanto.

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1 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast, we talk a bit about authors we “broke up” with. Writers like, say, Philip Roth, who evokes a pretty harsh reaction from Tom . . . Additionally we talk about authors we thought we had given up on, but to whom we keep returning and returning.

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24 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, we finish up our John Locke discussion by quoting from his How I Sold 1 Million Ebooks in Five Months, and then move on to discussing good literature, including six book recommendations for the summer.

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10 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Chad and Tom are back, and this week they’re tackling whether ebook pricing can destroy the world, whether publishers with unlimited resources can save the world, and whether anyone in the world really wants their favorite authors to Tweet @ them.

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3 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Tom and I dropped the baseball talk (for the most part, and to avoid cursing the Cardinals in advance of the weekend series against the Cubs) to talk about BookExpo America: Harlequin & their NASCAR love series, the lack of actual books at the fair, the parties, and Patti Smith.

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20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week is another baseball-centric podcast in which Tom Roberge came up with individual book recommendations for five Mets players. (A la Phil Jackson.)

With BookExpo America taking place next week, we talked a bit about books (and parties) we’re looking forward to. (Spoiler: Tom’s into Guns ‘n Roses and wants to crash the Duff McKagen party.)

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12 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s episode, Tom and Chad discuss Enrique Vila-Matas’s forthcoming “Never Any End to Paris,” which was translated by Anne McLean.

In the novel, the narrator gives a three-day lecture on irony and his experiences living in Paris for two years, trying to emulate Ernest Hemingway.

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4 May 11 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

This week Tom and Chad talk about the Best Translated Book Award winners, the recently completed PEN World Voices Festival, the ideas of corporate and economic censorship, Vladimir Sorokin’s coming-out events, ray guns, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s new book.

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27 April 11 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

This week, Tom and Chad talk about the PEN World Voices Festival and the upcoming Best Translation Book Award ceremony. Along the way, they talk about Vladimir Sorokin (his “Siberian earthf***ers” and how he’s not really like Bolano), the overratedness of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Hungarian author Laszlo Krashnahorkai.

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22 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

A number of interesting e-book related articles and news items came out over the past few days, and rather than try and make something coherent out of all this, I’m just going to post a smattering of links . . . So:

The big news this week was Jeff Bezos’s announcement that Amazon.com is now selling more e-books than hardcovers. From the Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. said it reached a milestone, selling more e-books than hardbacks over the past three months. [. . .]

Amazon said Kindle device sales accelerated each month in the second quarter—both on a sequential month-over-month basis and on a year-over-year basis. But the statistics that Amazon shared were all relative—it didn’t share actual sales figures. The company has never said how many Kindle devices or e-books it has sold. [. . .]

Amazon painted a picture of accelerating growth in sales of e-books, which can be read on the Kindle and through software on a host of other devices, including Apple’s iPad and iPhone. The figures don’t include free e-books.

Over the past month, the Seattle retailer sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books it sold, it said.

At one of the independent bookstore I used to work for the owner would always give us data on the store’s performance in a series of ratios. This was always extremely aggravating, since he’d project a bar graph with no scale, no numbers, a sliver of profit (how much? A million dollars? Ten?) and a lecture about how we were all wasting too much time reading and not organizing the shelves.

So I get why everyone’s critical of this statement, and granted it would be nice to know what actual figures are. (Although this is the book business . . . Real hard data, like, how about actual print runs?, isn’t all that easy to come buy. Even when hard data seems to exist—such as BookScan—a lot of effort is put into debunking that so that everything can remain as murky as possible.) That said, it’s interesting to note that sales of hardcover books at Amazon.com increased last year, and unless the sales of paperbacks plummeted (unlikely) it sounds like ebook sales were more supplementary than cannibalistic. And that’s interesting.

What I’d be interested in finding out is ebook sales by genre. Even if given in ratio form (for every 1 ebook sold of literature in translation, 70,000 business ebooks were sold), this would be interesting to know. And would sort of clarify the current scene a bit. Cause maybe not all ebooks are epubbed equally. Or whatever.

*

Speaking of ebooks and their distribution, over at The Atlantic there’s a longish article on Google Editions and what it is:

So what does Google Editions add to the mix? The answer, based on conversations with Google representatives and bookseller—particularly among the independent stores—is that Google will be adding millions of digital titles for sale on any device with Internet access: smart phones, tablets, netbooks, desktops, and every digital reading device except Kindle, which for now at least continues to operate on a closed proprietary system. But Google and Amazon are continuing discussions, so that may yet change.

In preparation for its rollout, Google says that through its “Partnership Program” it has made deals with 35,000 publishers and scanned millions of titles. For now, if you go to Google Books, you can preview up to 20 percent of the title you select (go ahead and try it with a best-seller like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and then choose from available options for purchase of the printed book. Assuming the program works as planned, Google Editions will put up for sale a vast universe of trade e-books, plus technical and professional titles and out of copyright works (which will be free) for use when, where and how the consumer chooses. The consumer will put the books they buy on Google’s cloud (which means its enormous servers) and can access their personal library at will. Suppose you start reading on your iPhone and switch to your tablet or desktop—the book will pick up where you left off.

In effect, Google Editions seems poised to become the world’s largest seller of e-books. If you’ve followed this issue in recent years, it may seem confusing that Google will be selling books while still in litigation with the Association of American Publishers and the Author’s Guild over the right to display the texts of millions books Google has scanned through its library project. That case applies solely to books obtained from cooperating libraries that made their collections available to Google to, in effect, give away, which is why the publishers objected. The settlement under consideration now in the courts would require Google to pay royalties for books it displays and gives authors the right to opt out of the program if they choose to do so. In any event, the outcome of that case has no bearing on the Google Editions enterprise, according to Google’s spokesmen.

This should be interesting . . .

*

I still think it’s funny that the L.A. Times interviewed a twelve-year-old from a Rochester suburb for their future of reading piece, but this article is pretty interesting. Starting from the p.o.v. that digital will change everything (sure, sure, beliefs and qualifications and dissents all noted), Alex Pham and David Sarno list a number of interesting reading and writing related websites. Because of my obsession with how people find out about books, this is the part I like the best:

“We’ve pretty much reached the point where the supply has now shifted to infinite,” said Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press, a small New York publisher. “So the next question is: How do you make people want it?” Part of the answer may be found on Goodreads.com, a digital library and social networking site where millions of members can log in and chat about any book they want, including many that will never see print.

Lori Hettler of Tobyhanna, Pa., runs one of the largest book clubs on Goodreads, with nearly 7,000 members chiming in from all over the globe. Discussions can go on for hundreds of messages, with readers passionately championing — or eviscerating — the club’s latest selection.

I’ve really been getting into Goodreads over the past few months, especially now that it’s linked up with my Facebook account. It’s thanks to Goodreads that I found out about Albert Cossery.

And related to the series of posts I was writing about the future of reading, I mentioned Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, the way using the Internet reconfigures your brain, how hyperlinks make it hard to remember shit, et cetera, et cetera. This bit from the end of the L.A. Times piece sort of reflects on that:

Whereas printed texts often are linear paths paved by the author chapter by chapter, digital books encourage readers to click here or tap there, launching them on side journeys before they even reach the bottom of a page. Some scholars fear that this is breeding a generation of readers who won’t have the attention span to get through “The Catcher in the Rye,” let alone “Moby-Dick.”

“Reading well is like playing the piano or the violin,” said the poet and critic Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “It is a high-level cognitive ability that requires long-term practice. I worry that those mechanisms in our culture that used to take a child and have him or her learn more words and more complex syntax are breaking down.”

But Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said it was a mistake to conclude that young people learned less simply because “they are flitting around all over the place” as they read.

“Kids are reading and writing more than ever,” he said. “Their lives are all centered around words.”

Dr. Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of “iBrain,” said Internet use activated more parts of the brain than reading a book did.

On the other hand, online readers often demonstrate what Small calls “continuous partial attention” as they click from one link to the next. The risk is that we become mindless ants following endless crumbs of digital data. “People tend to ask whether this is good or bad,” he said. “My response is that the tech train is out of the station, and it’s impossible to stop.”

*
But simply making things digital and available and whatever isn’t necessarily enough. Over at the always fascinating (and very well-designed) Triple Canopy, Penguin’s Tom Roberge has an interesting post about the Internet, hierarchy, and design (scroll down to “Annotations” section and look for “At Swim in the Shallows” to read the whole thing):

In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks wrote, “The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian.” This is a long-standing claim, and is on one level true: Internet access offers (near) universal freedom to create and disseminate information, and to consume it on the other end. But on another level, this assertion is complete bullshit: We all know that the Internet has its own hierarchy, that the virtual equivalent of the crazy homeless man ranting about UFOs shouldn’t be—and, generally, is not—taken seriously.

Consider design. Books, for several hundred years, have not changed much at all. The paper is nicer. The covers last longer. And the evolution of printing technology has allowed for prettier pictures. But the format has remained static since the letterpress days: One reads from left to right, top to bottom, turning the pages to make progress. The Internet, on the other hand, is almost infinitely malleable—but you need a good blacksmith. Which has led to a hierarchy: the nicer, the more professional looking a site is, the more respected it is. Which sort of negates the egalitarianism.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next eleven days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, Melville House)

Below is a guest post from Tom Roberge, an editor at Penguin, avid fan of international literature, and big lover of this book.

Last March was a strange time for novels dealing with Nazis. On the one hand Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones finally appeared in the US, and reactions on both ends of the critical spectrum were hyperbolic. The fictional memoir of a Nazi officer who details his role in scores of unspeakable atrocities that won two of France’s major literary awards, it was either heralded as a masterpiece or dismissed as utter garbage by American critics. I wanted nothing to do with it, not because I cringe at descriptions of violence and depravity—I generally gravitate towards them—but instead because I’d read so many reviews that accused Littell of a grievous fault: being a bad writer. Questionable morality I can handle; bad writing I cannot. To this day, the only person I’ve spoken to who’s read the book was a used bookseller at a flea market, and he claimed that it was the best book he’d ever read.

On the other hand was Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which for some absurd reason had never been published in the U.S. since it was completed just before the author’s death in 1947. But thanks to Dennis Johnson at Melville House Books, this oversight has been addressed. At the heart of the story are Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged German couple whose soldier son has died just before the book’s opening. At first simply stunned into near paralysis, they slowly emerge from their passivity and begin a quiet civil disobedience campaign by making and distributing anti-Nazi postcards. They imagine they’re sparking revolution, or at least sparking a conversation about a revolution, but the truth is that the cards are rarely seen by anyone other than citizen informants and their official contacts. Their efforts are not only largely fruitless, they’re also incredibly dangerous; as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t look kindly on defiance.

What makes Every Man Dies Alone so remarkable is its portrait of what we’d now call “average” Germans during World War II. They’re average on one level because they’re blue collar employees living in modest conditions. They are also surrounded by and only interact with other people living in similar situations, some better off, some worse off. But they’re average on another level as well: they are not targets of Nazi “cleansing.” Instead they are the people for whom Hitler’s war is being fought. In return for this crusade, all the Nazis ask for is unquestioned loyalty and total devotion to the war effort.

Littell’s Nazi officer is a cruel, despicable man. He represents the entire Nazi regime, and The Kindly Ones is meant to give readers a glimpse inside the minds of men who killed millions mercilessly, all for the sake of an appallingly horrific ideal. Fallada, however, set out to portray life among the non-Jewish, non-military Germans during the war, and what he reveals is a terrorizing existence. Otto and Anna had been, before their son was killed in combat, as close to politically apathetic as it was possible to be in Nazi Germany. They hated the war and they hated Hitler, but they believed they were powerless to do anything, so they spent all of their time either at work or at home, avoiding contact with anyone but each other as much as possible. They were absolutely terrified, and Fallada shows why this is by following various other characters as they navigate the tense society.

A family of zealous former Nazi youths spies on its neighbors, robs an elderly Jewish woman, and generally causes trouble for anyone it believes is disloyal or insufficiently loyal. A lazy, lecherous man tips off officials for the money. On the other side there are people like Otto and Anna who want nothing more than to keep to themselves, including an elderly doctor who allows the aforementioned elderly Jewish woman to take refuge in his apartment, along with a postal worker who brazenly quits the Nazi party—despite the fact that it means she’ll be essentially unable to work again—when she realizes what her soldier son has been up to. The Berlin that emerges is one of constant terror. The Nazis have used terror to force average citizens to spy on each other, to exploit each other, to cast suspicion on each other. Fear of being wrongly accused, arrested, and punished or killed drives many people inside, both literally and figuratively. They race to work and race home, and talk to no one. And once home, they barely talk to each other, keeping all thoughts to themselves. It takes Otto and Anna several days to even talk about the death of their son. In such conditions, every action against the state, every slightly critical word or insincere gesture of loyalty, is magnified to superlative levels, and the consequences can be life-altering to say the least.

As I read, the book I thought of the most was Camus’ The Plague, his extended allegory on German-occupied France during the same time period that Fallada’s book takes place. Both books are about finding ways to get through individual days and about fighting back against ubiquitous terror. The doctor in The Plague fights back steadily but cautiously, despite pleas from his neighbors, one of whom gets through the days by perpetually re-drafting the opening sentence of a novel. Otto and Anna fight back, as well, but their battle isn’t as successful, except in one very crucial, personal regard: it engendered hope, it offered a vision of a different life. There is no happy ending here. Instead this is an invaluable portrait of a time and place that we should all make every effort to understand as much as possible.

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