Book Fight!

Tough love for literature


Episode 164: Winter of Wayback, 1978 (H.L. Sintetos, “Telling the Bees”)

In 1978, the writer H.L. Sintetos had a story featured in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology, after which she seemed to mostly disappear from the literary world. Which is particularly disappointing given how good that story was. We both enjoyed “Telling the Bees,” a thoughtful portrayal of a woman coming to terms with her own solitude.

This week we talk about Sintetos’s story, and what (to our minds, at least) separate it from lesser versions of stories about “wise country folks,” some of which can come across as patronizing. We also try to figure out what happened to Sintetos, and why we’d never heard of her work.

In lieu of a photo of the author, please enjoy this image of a Billy Joel mask, which will make more sense once you listen to this week’s show.


In addition to the story, we talk about lots of other 1978 stuff, including serial killers, a Papal conspiracy theory, dark days in Philadelphia, a possible Owl Man, plus Grease and Sha Na Na!

As always, you can stream the show right here on our site, by clicking on the little player thingy below. Or download the mp3 file to play on your favorite device. You can also find us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another episode.

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Episode 163: Sara Novic, Girl at War

Our book this week is Sara Novic’s Girl at War, a novel about a young woman whose life was ripped apart by the Yugoslav Civil War. It took her parents from her, and briefly turned her into a child soldier, before she was able to escape to Philadelphia, where she did her best to put the past in the past and live as an American.

The book received mostly positive reviews, like this one in the New York Times, though we also discuss the book’s most over-the-top takedown, from the Irish Times.


In the second half of the show, we’ve got the return of Fan Fiction Corner! Have you ever wondered what kind of fan fiction people were writing about HGTV programs? No? Well, you’re going to find out anyway!


As always, you can listen to the episode right here on our site, by clicking on the player thingy below. Or download the mp3 file and do with it what you will. You can also find us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another installment again.

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Episode 162: Winter of Wayback, 1988 (Mary La Chapelle)

This week we’re time-traveling back to 1988: U2’s Rattle and Hum was climbing the charts, Die Hard and Crocodile Dundee II ruled the box office, and A.L.F. was king (of our hearts). Also, the writer Mary La Chapelle won a Whiting Award, and lots of praise for her first story collection, House of Heroes. If you’re unfamiliar with La Chapelle’s work, that may be because she’s yet to publish another book since that promising debut (though she continues to teach at Sarah Lawrence, where she runs the MFA program).


We don’t want to speculate too much about what’s going on with La Chapelle and her work–plenty of writers, after all, have taken lots of years in between books (Mike’s former teacher, Marilynne Robinson, comes to mind). Instead, we dig into the first story in her 1988 collection, “Anna in a Small Town,” about a mime and a giant, which you can read for free via Google Books.

We also talk about lots of other 1988 news, including a Philadelphia garbage barge that found itself on a years-long world tour, plus plenty of behind-the-scenes details about A.L.F., a show that was apparently a lot more fun to watch than it was to work on.

Speaking of A.L.F., here’s the clip we mentioned on the show, in which he says the n-word and also acts like a creep toward his teenaged co-star.

As always, you can stream the show 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, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another weekly installment. If you want to weigh in on what we talked about this week, feel free to leave a comment here on the site, send us an email, or hit us up on Twitter or Facebook.

Thanks for listening!

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Episode 161: Jennifer Weiner, Good in Bed

We’ve talked about Jennifer Weiner any number of times on the show, usually when she’s written (or tweeted) something that’s caused a bit of an uproar in the writing world–or when she and Jonathan Franzen have gotten into one of their famously catty spats. We also read one of her first publications, a short story featured in Seventeen Magazine, back in episode 133. But we’d never read any of her novels, and it felt like time. Weiner has argued that her books are unfairly pigeonholed, so we were both curious what we’d think about her work.

We chose Weiner’s first novel, the one that put her on the map:


Will we love it? Hate it? Will we shrug our shoulders in its general direction? Only one way to find out!

(The way to find out is by listening to the episode. Was that not clear? Sorry if that wasn’t clear.)

As always, you can stream the show right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. You can also find us in the iTunes store, or wherever you normally get your podcasts. We also welcome your feedback on what we talked about. Feel free to leave a comment here on the site, send us an email, Tweet at us, or find us on Facebook.

Thanks for listening!


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Episode 160: Winter of Wayback, 1966 (Philip K. Dick)

It’s the first episode of 2017’s Winter of Wayback, perhaps our favorite seasonal feature. This week, listeners, please join us in time-traveling to 1966. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus! The Church of Satan was founded! And Philip K. Dick published the short story that would eventually be adapted into the movie Total Recall. You can read his story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” here.

Here we see the famous sci-fi author predicting both Glamour Shots and Tinder. He really was a soothsayer!


As regular listeners know, Mike doesn’t often like science fiction. This week, he’s perhaps figured out where that mental block comes from. Also, Tom introduces his new seasonal feature, in which he promises to investigate some of history’s greatest (and weirdest) conspiracy theories.

As always, you can stream the show here on our site, by clicking on the player below. Or download the mp3 file, and do with it what you will. You can always find us in the iTunes store, too, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. We’re also happy to hear your feedback. You can leave a comment on the post itself, shoot us an email, or hit us up on either Twitter or Facebook.

Thanks for listening!

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2016: The Book Fight! Year in Review

Well, friends, it’s been another year, and we’ve produced another year’s worth of content. So much content! Honestly, if we stop and think about it for too long, it starts to make us tired. Malcolm Gladwell says if you do something for 10,000 hours, you become “world class” at that thing, but what if you spend 10,000 hours doing something kinda dumb?

Looking back on 2016, there were some highs, and there were also some lows. Great books! Not-so-great books! Amazing fanfiction! More amazing fanfiction! Plus snacks! Herewith, some of our favorites (and least favorites) from the year that was.

Tom’s Year in Review

Favorite Books of 2016, in Reverse Order for Most Dramatic Effect, And With Links to Their Respective Episodes

5. Joseph Mitchell, JOE GOULD’S SECRET (Episode 118)
4. Chris Bachelder, ABBOTT AWAITS (Episode 114)
3. Sarah Shotland, JUNKETTE (Episode 110)
2. Rachel Kushner, THE FLAMETHROWERS (Episode 136)
1. Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD (Episode 146)

Least Favorite Book of 2016

Last year, there were two obvious contenders for this title, both of which were books I just absolutely did not get and did not like, but this year, it’s a bit harder. There were books I liked less than others, but nothing stands out as having been absolutely terrible. All that said, while I appreciate Agatha Christie and value her contributions to American literature, it was shocking to see just how bad her actual writing is. Throw in some weird racism, and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (Episode 122) gets my pick for worst book we discussed this year.

Book I Didn’t Love But Am Glad I Read

WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT, by Gary K. Wolf (Episode 126), not because it was good, exactly, or thought-provoking, but it was a fun, weird book with a great premise, and I clearly have a higher tolerance for some of the conventions of noirish detective books than Mike does. Besides, reading this allowed us to have Jen Miller on the show, and she was a great guest.

Favorite Story or Essay of 2016

“Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek (Episode 147), which I hadn’t read in many years and now, after having re-read it, think it might just be a perfect story.

Least Favorite Mike Pick

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was my least favorite book of the year, so that has to be the pick here too. Let me just take the opportunity now to complain that, due to various scheduling quirks, Mike got to pick nine books this year, while I only got to pick eight, and I can only hope that the guilt over this injustice keeps him up at night.

Favorite Guest Pick

As always, our guests picked a great variety of books and it’s hard now to sort through and pick just one. But I really enjoyed ABBOTT AWAITS, Andrew Brininstool’s pick for episode 114. It’s the kind of weird, funny, relentlessly sad book that feels like it was made for me.

Favorite Winter of Wayback Discovery

I really enjoyed learning everything we did about the bizarre, tragic life of Alfred Chester in Episode 115. I liked his weird story, “As I was Going Up the Stair,” too, but reading about his sad life, his associations with other literary figures of the era, and the whole arc of his career was exactly the kind of discussion I love about the Winter of Wayback.

Recommendation I’d Like to Take Back

Looking through the MATR archive, I realize now that I actually gave really top-notch recommendations all year, and so therefore I take none of them back, though I will re-recommend the documentary The Imposter. If I could retract one of Mike’s recommendations, it would be the time he recommended beans. Beans are fine. But this is not what the people want.

Best Bonus Episode in Which Matthew Vollmer and I Play a Weird Old Mummy Board Game

This one

Three Worst Foods We Consumed During the Fall of Food

3. Mountain Dew Energizing Midnight Grape Kickstart, a drink so extreme it needed 6 names.

2. 7-11 chips that allegedly tasted like sausage with peppers and onions but instead tasted like something a wizard would give you to put you to sleep for a hundred years

1. Whatever the hell those fish things were that a generous listener/assassin sent to us from Japan.

Most Upsetting Fanfiction Corner Segment, Which We Can Only Hope Has Killed That Segment Forever

The Alvin and the Chipmunks fanfic (from Episode 144) in which Alvin develops a diaper fetish, and I’m sorry, again, for typing that sentence.

Best Short Story or Essay That Mike Didn’t Give a Chance Because He’s Not Super Into Fun

John Dickson Carr’s supernatural stories, (discussed in Episode 117). These stories were pretty good! Mike was more interested in discussing monkey antics.

Author Most Deserving of the Second Chance We Gave Them This Summer

Sheila Heti, who of course does not need our approval, but whose book we were pretty harsh on years ago, and now we’ve both come around on her and realized we were probably not reading that book fairly. Discussed in Episode 143.

Mike’s Year in Review

Favorite Books of 2016, in Reverse Order for Most Dramatic Effect, And With Links to Their Respective Episodes

5. Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD (Episode 146)
4. Sarah Shotland, JUNKETTE (Episode 110)
3. Javier Marias, A HEART SO WHITE (Episode 144)
2. Han Kang, THE VEGETARIAN (Episode 154)
1. Chris Bachelder, ABBOTT AWAITS (Episode 114)

Least favorite book of 2016

Honestly, this was kind of tough this year, as there weren’t many books I really loathed. But I’m going with Kanan Makiya’s THE ROPE (Episode 132), a book that’s earned plenty of praise but which I found wholly underwhelming. It’s a worthwhile project, attempting to examine why so many people (including Makiya himself) were wrong about what would happen in Iraq after the American invasion. But as a work of fiction, it really falls flat.

Book From My Childhood I’m Very Glad I Revisited

I’m always a little nervous to re-read something I loved as a kid, because it feels like you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. But this year I confirmed that C.S. Lewis’s THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE (Episode 120) is indeed a very good book.

Favorite Story or Essay of 2016

“Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek (Episode 147). This is probably unfair, since I picked this story knowing full well that I loved it. But guess what? I still love it.

Favorite Winter of Wayback Discovery

There were so many great discoveries this year, at least two of them involving monkeys: the phenomenon of “monkey dinners” (Episode 111) and monkeys running wild through the streets of New York City (Episode 117). Though I think the one that will have the most lasting impact was getting to read the snarky columns of H.L. Mencken in The Smart Set (Episode 109).

Favorite Thing I Learned About Tom This Year

That he once got dumped via Fleetwood Mac lyrics (Episode 139)

Favorite Guest Pick

This one’s tough, as two of my top-5 books were picked by guests, and even though I didn’t love the Roger Rabbit book Tom mentioned above, I was really glad that Jen Miller made us read it. But I’m giving this one to Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (Episode 156), who finally got me to read Lester Bangs’ collected works, a collection of reviews and essays I’m very happy to finally slide from the “to-read” shelf to the “have-read” shelf. Plus, Hanif was fun to hang out with and he read a really great poem at Tire Fire and wasn’t too put off by my downstairs neighbor’s Trump window sign, which was the bane of my existence for several months.

Recommendation I’d Like to Take Back

I Am Not Your Guru, the documentary about Tony Robbins, is not as good as I thought it was, and could definitely use a bit more healthy skepticism toward its subject. On the other hand, I’m glad I recommended it, since some of you checked it out and then tweeted or messaged me about it. The main takeaway: it’s kind of amazing I’ve yet to be lured into a cult.

Best Pop Tart Flavor

Strawberry Frosted

Best Fanfiction Corner Segment, A Feature Which Will Definitely Be Continuing in 2017 And Which Only Gets Stronger Because It Feeds On Tom’s Disgust

The Alvin and the Chipmunks fanfic (from Episode 144) in which Alvin develops a diaper fetish.


So there you go, folks! All the best (and worst!) stuff from 51 weeks of podcasting in 2015. We’ll be back next week with another exciting episode, plus we’ll be reviving the Winter of Wayback. So get yourself ready for that. In the meantime, if you like our show, please help spread the word to your book-loving friends and family. We’ve hit some great milestones in 2016, but we’re hoping to keep improving the show and growing our audience in 2017. Thanks again for all your support!

That’s another … YEAR … in the books!


Episode 159: Christmas Spectacular 2016

Hello, Book Fight listeners! We’ve made it through another year, if barely. As a reward, let’s all enjoy this super-sized holiday episode. Two books! A very special surprise guest! An above-average amount of bickering! Plus some discussion–perhaps fueled by end-of-year exhaustion–about whether this dumb show should continue to exist. Enjoy!

Our first book, despite the word “Christmas” appearing in the title, turned out to be less a holiday book than a shooting-and-punching-everyone-but-especially-Native-Americans book. There was so much shooting and punching! And enough offensive descriptions of Indians that readers will be rooting for the “renegades” to just kill all the book’s terrible white people.


Look, there’s no reason for you to read this book. Instead, listen to us try to explain its overstuffed cast of characters and stupid, idiot plot.

For the show’s second act, we’re joined by a very special surprise guest. We can’t say who it is. But we CAN say that longtime listeners will be very, very excited.

Our second book was a Christmas romance, which was at least sort of fun to read.It involves a Christmas-themed strip club, an undercover cop, true love, and SO MUCH FUCKING. An undercover cop visits a strip club as part of an investigation, meets a hot accountant who’s pretending to be a stripper, and sparks fly! (By “sparks,” we mean “bodily fluids” and by “fly” we mean pass in and out of various bodily orifices).



As always, you can stream the episode here on our site, by clicking the player thingy below. Or download the mp3 file. You can also visit us in the iTunes store, where you can download back episodes and subscribe (for free!) so you’ll never miss another installment.

We’ll be taking next week off, but donors will soon receive a special bonus episode. So, if you can’t handle a week without Book Fight, there’s still time to donate (click the piggy bank over there on the right) and get all three of the 2016 bonus episodes.

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