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Episode 77: Robb Forman Dew, Dale Loves Sophie to Death

We’re back this week with another book-centered episode, this time on the 1982 National Book Award winner for best debut novel (back when that category still existed). We talk about “quiet” novels, and prickly female protagonists, and portrayals of parental anxiety. Also: Why did Tom pick this book, and then so quickly try to disown it? And why doesn’t he like spending time with Mike in the office?

DaleSophie

In case you were wondering – and why wouldn’t you be? – Hungry Hungry Hippos is, in fact, a Milton Bradley joint. Also, the hippos apparently have names, which is just adorable.

Here’s a video of Paula Deen being hit in the face with a ham. Plus, I guess, the “Paula Deen Gets Hit In The Face With a Ham Remix”? The internet is fucking weird.

Finally – though, one might argue, most importantly! – here’s the link to click if you’d like to donate to our annual fund drive. Even a few bucks is appreciated. As we noted on the show, donations are like a vote of confidence, and confirmation that you’re actually out there, listening to and even enjoying the show. Until we figure out some better, more efficient way to monetize the work we do putting this thing together, our annual fundraising jam is the best we can do.

As always, we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about during the episode. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, please consider writing us an iTunes review, and spread the word to your literature-loving friends. You can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or subscribe (for free) and never miss another installment.

Thanks for listening!

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Winter of Wayback: 1982

Astute listeners will note that there’s supposed to be a book episode this week. Unfortunately, that episode was eaten up by a technical snafu. Fortunately, we had our second Winter of Wayback episode ready to go, and here it is!

But before we get into the details of this week’s episode, let us give you the link to our Indiegogo page, where you can donate a very small portion of your hard earned money to help us meet our annual fundraising goal. We bring you this show every week, for free, so this is your chance to give a little something back. Plus we’ve got some great donor giveaways for you, including a three-pack of bonus holiday episodes for $35, which is, frankly, a pretty amazing bargain. If that’s a bit steep — and, hey, we’re both poor writers, we get it — for only $15 we’ll write you a blurb and read it on the air. And honestly, even five or ten bucks will help. Check out all the details here.

OK, so this week we’re visiting 1982, the year of Tom’s birth, to read a story called “Dancing Ducks and Talking Anus,” by James Ferry. The story appeared in the 1982 Best American Short Stories anthology, selected by John Gardner, after which the author was basically never heard from again. In fact, some internet sleuthing led us to believe this was Ferry’s only published story. Then we ran across Troy Tradup, a writer and publisher who loved this story so much he’d spent nearly 30 years tracking down its author. We caught up with Tradup over email, and he filled us in on as much of Ferry’s story as he’s been able to assemble (see full interview, below).

Tradup eventually acquired the rights to the story and made it available as a 99-cent ebook, which you can purchase through the website of his company, Tough Times Publishing.

We’re also talking this week about all things 1982, including the Commodore 64, which was first introduced that year and became the best-selling computer of all time. More relevant to our show, both of us owned them as children. We also talk about the 1982 World’s Fair, held in Knoxville, Tennessee. Check out this ad for the fair, which we swear is a real thing:

As is our custom on these Winter of Wayback episodes, we’ve got some quick Beatles-related news, and Philadelphia-related news, including this pretty incredible video, of some idiots in Kensington who got their hands on a camcorder:

Also! Here’s the cover of Ringo Starr’s Stop and Smell the Roses, the album which apparently got him dropped by his label in 1982.

ringo3-lp-a

And here’s a picture of Bryan Ferry, formerly of Roxy Music and presently of your dreams:

bryan-ferry-006

Finally, we talk this week about “Lawn Chair Larry,” a truck driver who in 1982 piloted a Sears lawn chair over Los Angeles with the help of helium balloons, his girlfriend, Miller Lite, and moxie. Larry’s story is pretty funny, until it eventually takes a tragic turn. Careful listeners might hear Mike choke up a little at the tail end of the episode, as he recounts the later details of Larry’s life. On a cheerier note, here’s a newsreel from Larry’s flight:

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another installment. we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, tell your friends. And give us some damn money!

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Full interview with Troy Tradup:

Book Fight: What is it that you love so much about this story?

Troy Tradup: A toughie right off the bat! I think I was initially struck, back in 1982, by the aggressiveness of the writing – that title, that startling opening sentence – and by the unrelenting darkness of the story. I was a young writer myself at the time, and something about Ferry’s prose just spoke to me. I wanted my own writing to be that brave, that confident, that startling.

Over time, I grew to better understand all of the layers Ferry had managed to build into the piece, and its overriding themes of troubled assimilation in a changing (or perhaps irrevocably changed) America. The returning Vietnam vet who can’t quite find his place, the Native American watching his culture fade, the sad woman unable to assert her own feminist power and so instead a victim to a bad relationship – there’s some major stuff going on in this story!

Ultimately, though, what’s most thrilling and lasting about “Dancing Ducks” for me is its gorgeous dark language and its overwhelming sadness for all three characters and the world they’ve inherited.

BF: In your Goodreads review, you said you spent 30 years trying to track down the author. I’d love to know more about that. Where did you even begin? How did you go about trying to locate him? Did you ever come close to finding him? Do you have any sense of how he managed to write this one story then just disappear?

TT: In the early days, I haunted libraries and bookstores looking for any other mention of James Ferry anywhere. Later I moved on to the internet and Google, and eventually – almost by accident – stumbled upon a comment by one of James’s friends on some random blog posting saying that James had died unexpectedly in 1999. That friend – Mary Donovan – helped me track down James’s brother Bill, and that allowed me to start the ball rolling on publishing the new e-book.

I go into more detail in the afterword I wrote for the e-book of “Dancing Ducks,” which includes biographical material about James and some beautiful thoughts from two of James’s friends (one being Mary Donovan) about their time together in a graduate writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

As for “Dancing Ducks” being something of a one-hit wonder, I do know that James left behind a number of other manuscripts, including at least part of a novel. At some point in the near future, I’m going to discuss with Bill the prospect of getting those materials properly catalogued and perhaps placed with a university or commercial agent. I’m not sure exactly what’s there, but I certainly have hopes for more stories like this one!

BF: Can you describe the process of acquiring the rights to the story? I’d like to think it would be relatively simple, but everything I know about publishing tells me it almost certainly wasn’t.

TT: In this case, once I’d connected with James’s brother Bill, the acquisition process was pretty simple. You’re right, though, it typically is not.

I think Bill was both flattered and flummoxed that someone was fanatic enough to have pursued his brother’s story across thirty years. I made it clear that this was strictly a passion project, and I think it really pleased him to know that James’s story would once again be available to readers.

BF: Is there anything else you learned about James Ferry that maybe you haven’t covered above?

TT: You asked before about this apparently being James’s only published story. I’ve since located another one – a very esoteric combination story/essay called “A Note on the Type” that was published in the journal Fourth Genre shortly after James’s death. That issue of Fourth Genre also contained a fascinating piece by novelist Bret Lott about James Ferry. Lott was a mentor to Ferry, and writes about the surreal experience of having his own novel chosen as an Oprah book at virtually the same time he was trying to process James’s death.

The other interesting thing I learned about James Ferry is how humble he apparently was. He had the huge success of “Dancing Ducks” being chosen for the Best Short Stories anthology and basically never told anyone, not even his closest friends. I wish I would have known him in person; he sounds like a pretty cool dude.

BF: Are you working on resurrecting any other lost fiction for Tough Times? Are there any other white whales like James Ferry?

TT: I started Tough Times back in 2010 to publish my own novel, The Forsaken Boy. That proved quite a spectacular success, so I broadened my mission to publish out-of-print horror, beginning with Michael McDowell’s serial novel Blackwater last year and continuing with a couple of titles this year. The chance to publish “Dancing Ducks” obviously moved Tough Times outside the realm of horror, and I’ve since explored several other non-horror titles I’d like to acquire, but negotiations can take a while.

There are several fantastic publishers right now dealing with exactly the sorts of material that attracts me – most notably the powerhouse boys over at Valancourt Books – so the majority of my “white whale” titles are either already in process elsewhere or hopelessly tied up (at least for now) in one sort of legal chaos or another.


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Annual fundraiser begins

Yes, it’s that time again. The annual fundraiser begins today.

We never went into podcasting to get rich, but we do hope to get some small return for all the time and money we invest in producing a weekly show that’s free for everyone to download. We love doing the show, and we’re going to keep going as long as it’s fun for us. Your contributions can help to support us in that endeavor, enhance the quality of the show, and (we hope) fund at least one road trip for another live show (or two or three?).

This year, we’re running fundraising through Indiegogo, so if you visit our fundraising page, you can see the full story and also track our progress.

Because we are an affiliate of Barrelhouse, which is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit, all donations are tax deductible, and there are, as always lots of great rewards for donors. My personal favorite is the Freaky Friday level of $1000, but you may be more comfortable with the $35 level which will get you the holiday bonus pack of three exclusive holiday episodes. Like last year, if we reach our goal of $5000, we’ll record a bonus episode based on your votes. What the hell, maybe we’ll even read Silver Linings Playbook again.

(we won’t).

The fundraising page is here. Please check it out, tell your friends, and if you can spare it, make a small donation to the show.

 

 


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Winter of Wayback: 1977

This week we’re kicking off our new seasonal series, The Winter of Wayback, in which we’ll choose a year, read a prize-winning story or essay from that year, and discuss the year’s pop cultural offerings–movies, music, books, whatever might help us put the story into cultural context (or just entertain our listeners, and us). For the inaugural week we’ve traveled back to 1977, the year of Mike’s birth, to read a story by Ella Leffland called “Last Courtesies” (the story was originally published in Harper’s, and was one of two stories to win an O. Henry Award for 1977).

We also talk about 1977’s rich–and quite diverse–musical offerings, which include albums by Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac, Television, Styx, Foreigner, The Sex Pistols, Jimmy Buffett, and many, many more. For a sense of the year in music, you can check out Robert Christgau’s Pazz and Jop Critics Poll from the Village Voice (scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to Christgau’s explanatory essay).

After winning the O’Henry, Leffland went on to publish several well-reviewed books, though she’s far from a household name, even in literary circles. Many reviewers talk about her “traditional,” even “old-fashioned” style, and she’s been described by some as a “writer’s writer.”

One thing we’re interested in as we jump back to years past is to what degree our story picks reflect the times in which they’re published. At first we didn’t think this story would, but in the end we conclude that Leffland’s piece does, in fact, reflect many of the anxieties of 1977.

Speaking of 1977’s anxieties, here’s a link to the documentary NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, which is a pretty great peek into that year’s music and cultural scene in New York: CBGBs, Studio 54, Afrika Bambaata, and the summer blackout.

As always, we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, please consider writing us an iTunes review, and spread the word to your literature-loving friends. You can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or subscribe (for free) and never miss another installment.

Thanks for listening!

Stream:

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Episode 76: James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

We’re joined this week by Annie Liontas (author of the new novel Let Me Explain You) to discuss James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. The book, published in 1974, is narrated by a young woman whose fiancee has been wrongly accused of rape.

You can read the 1974 New York Times review of the book, written by Joyce Carol Oates, here.

Baldwin Beale Street

We also talk to Annie about her new novel, her parents’ arranged marriage, her love for Asbury Park, New Jersey, and why she thinks James Baldwin might be the greatest American author.

You can find out more about the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. book we talked about during the episode here, or read an electronic version of his essay “The Passing of Anatole Broyard” (warning: that electronic version has some typos and formatting issues; if you’re a New Yorker subscriber you can read a cleaner version here).

As always, we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about during the episode. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, please consider writing us an iTunes review, and spread the word to your literature-loving friends. You can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or subscribe (for free) and never miss another installment.

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Fall of Failure #8: Brian Oliu and the Psychology of Failure

Helloooooooo, Book Fighters! Welcome to the final week of our Fall of Failure! Yes, yes, we know it’s actually winter now. But this is how our schedule worked out. And we recorded this episode in the tail end of fall. And also get off our damn backs already.

This week’s reading is an unconventional essay by Brian Oliu called “As Is.” The piece is constructed like an ebay listing for Oliu’s body, including its history, its uses, and its defects. We talk about ways to experiment with narrative form without being gimmicky, and how experiments in form can open up your writing.

Also this week, we’re wrapping up our discussion of failure by talking about the psychology of failure. Why do we insist on attaching a narrative to our personal and collective failures, and what can we learn from the particular narrative we choose to attach? We talk about the linguistic history of the word “failure” itself, and how it changed over the course of the 19th century in America, when business failures became inextricably linked with personal and moral failures. Here’s a link to check out the book Mike talked about–highly recommended!–called Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, by clicking on the little player thingy below. Or download the mp3 file. You can also visit us in the iTunes store, or through just about any of the available podcast apps, where you can subscribe (for free) and never miss another episode.

If you want to check out the Fall of Failures playlist Mike compiled on Spotify, you can see/hear it here.

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We always welcome your feedback on what we talked about on the show. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the episode post. Thanks for listening!


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Episode 75: 2014 Holiday Spectacular

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for a supernatural bounty hunter who just showed up unannounced in some lady’s kitchen. Also some firemen with wacky names and six-pack abs.

It’s late December, and you know what that means: time for the annual Book Fight Holiday Spectacular*, during which we take a break from our usual reading and celebrate the season by reading ridiculous books. It would be pretty tough to top last year’s offerings, which included a James Patterson novel that is perhaps the worst book ever written in (a close approximation of) the English language. Though the first of this year’s picks–Janet Evanovich’s Visions of Sugar Plums–seems determined to give Patterson a run for his (ill-deserved) money.

Plum

Adding insult to injury, the cover promises a bad-ass Santa, but the book features exactly zero bad-ass Santas.

Next up, after last year’s bizarre Christmas-themed romance novel, we took a suggestion from a listener and checked out It’s A Wonderful Fireman, a novel by USA Today best-selling author Jennifer Bernard.

Fireman

The title makes (a little) more sense once you realize the book is (sort of) a retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life. Also, one of us is kind of in love with this book, and might be making plans to read more in the Bachelor Firemen series.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, or download the mp3 file and do with it what you will. You can also visit us in the iTunes store, where you can (and should!) subscribe, so you’ll get each week’s episode automatically.

If you like this holiday episode, you’ll want to check back soon for the details of our annual fund drive. One of this year’s donor gifts will be a series of special bonus episodes in which we review holiday-specific books (e.g. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Arbor Day).

Also, if you’re interested in reading Barrelhouse’s Ghosts of Christmas Future series (which Tom describes early in the episode), you can find all the stories and poems here.

Finally, we always welcome your feedback on what we talked about on the show. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the episode post. Thanks for listening! And if you like the show, come on back next week, and tell your book-loving friends.

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*In the first year of the podcast, we referred to this episode as a Holiday Special. Last year we referred to it as a Christmas Spectacular. This year, I guess we’re splitting the difference?

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