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Tough love for literature

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Episode 284: James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”

We’re continuing our Summer School season of the podcast, in which we’re reading things we feel like we should have gotten to by now. This week is a Tom pick, a particularly famous essay by James Baldwin about the death of his father, bitterness, and race in America. Tom had read other Baldwin works before, but never this piece.

We talk about the ways this essay still feels relevant to American life, and the strength of Baldwin’s prose and his intellect. We also check out some middling Goodreads reviews of Baldwin’s work, to see what the people are complaining about. Plus: bad donuts, missed opportunities, Eagles songs, and why every poet is into astrology.

As always, you can stream the show right here on our site, or download the mp3 file to listen to later. Or check us out in Apple podcasts, where you can subscribe (for free!) and catch up on older episodes. We’re also available on Spotify, Stitcher, or just about any other podcast app. If for some reason you can’t find us in your favorite app, please reach out and let us know!

If you like the show, please consider subscribing to our Patreon, which helps us make a bit of money each month and keep the show going. For just $5 a month, you’ll get access to a monthly bonus episode, Book Fight After Dark, in which we visit some of the weirder, goofier corners of the literary world. Recently, that’s involved reading a paranormal romance novel, the debut novel of Jersey Shore’s Snookie, and the novelization of the movie Robocop.

Thanks for listening!

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Episode 68: Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter

This week we have another Tom pick, perhaps the best-known novel by Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, first published in 1964 (Oe won the Nobel Prize thirty years later). The semi-autobiographical novel follows Bird, a young father deciding whether to save his son–born with what appears to be a severe birth defect–or allow him to die.

a-personal-matter book jacket

We talk about the book’s rather graphic–and sometimes violent–sex scenes, as well as its portrayal of hospitals and medical professionals. Plus we’ve got another edition of our Sticks and Stones segment. And raccoon facts!

As always, you can stream the episode here on our site, or download the mp3 file. Or check us out in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another episode. Thanks for listening! We’d love your feedback on what we talked about. Feel free to leave a comment here on the site, send us an email, or hit us up on Twitter.

Oh! And we have t-shirts, which are now available for pre-order in our store.


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Episode 53: Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped

This week is a Tom pick—Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, which recounts the deaths of five young black men in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. We talk about de facto segregation in the American South, writing about family members, and amateur sociology. We also bring back our Sticks and Stones segment, read a couple more donor rejections, and try to figure out what happens in the 4th dimension.


If you want to take advantage of the special offer code we mentioned in the episode, here’s the place to go to pre-order a copy of Lee Klein’s book, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck. While you’re there, we hope you’ll consider picking up an issue of Barrelhouse, and also our first poetry collection, Justin Marks’ You’re Going to Miss Me When You’re Bored.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. Or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free) and never miss another installment.

Download Episode 53 (right-click, save-as)

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Episode 51: Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

This week we’re ringing in the new year by welcoming a special guest, our friend Joshua Isard, author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. Our book this week is Josh’s pick, Philip Roth’s 2004 work of alternate history, a “false memoir” that imagines the Newark of Roth’s youth if Charles Lindbergh had won the 1940 presidential election.


We discuss the believability of the book’s plot (not a pun) and the continuing presence of anti-semitism in America. We also bring back our Sticks and Stones segment, now with a theme song!

This week’s episode is sponsored by Five Chapters, an online literary journal that’s recently begun publishing story collections, including Everybody’s Irish by Ian Stansel. Check out Ian’s book by clicking on that link, and check out Five Chapters, which publishes a new short story every week.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, or check us out in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free) and never miss another episode. The show is also available via Stitcher, or a variety of podcasting apps.


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Episode 46: Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Well, it finally happened: we had to re-record an episode because the usually trusty Book Fight laptop ate our first effort. Technological woes aside, this week we’re talking about Cat’s Cradle, a book we both read as teenagers and are revisiting now as adults. We also discuss the behavioral proclivities of haters, beer can design, and why you should give us some of your hard-earned money.


Seriously, if you enjoy the show, we hope you’ll consider throwing us a few bucks to keep us funded for the next year. We certainly don’t expect to get rich from doing the podcast, or even moderately financially solvent, but we would like to recoup our ongoing technology costs, and maybe buy ourselves a few fancy beers. If you can afford to donate–and we know a lot of our listeners are poor writers, like us–we’ve got some great rewards lined up for you, including a digital anthology of work from past Book Fight guests (and your trusty Book Fight hosts), and a bonus episode in which we’ll read Rush Limbaugh’s forthcoming young adult novel, the sheer awesomeness of which we can’t even begin to fathom.

As always, thanks for listening, and for helping us spread the word about the show. You can stream the episode below, or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another episode.


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Episode 42: Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

Tom picked this week’s book, because he’s thinking about writing some post-apocalyptic fiction and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake came highly recommended. So, did it meet our expectations? Did it thrill us with its bleak vision of a world where humans have rendered themselves (mostly) extinct?


We also talk about fiction that proceeds from character versus fiction that proceeds from premise, and whether science fiction can ever be capital-L Literature. That discussion was prompted, in part, by this Sven Birkerts review of the novel, which first appeared in the New York Times and which you can read here.

As always, you can stream the episode for free right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. Or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe and never miss another episode. While you’re there, please consider leaving us a rating and a comment. If you want to further support the show, you can donate a few bucks by clicking on the little piggy bank over there on the right, or buy some books at Powell’s–if you get to their site using one of the links on our site, we’ll get a little portion of every dollar you spend. You’ll also be supporting a great independent bookstore, so win-win!

Finally, if you’re in or near Philadelphia, please consider coming out to the Conversations and Connections Writing Conference on Sept. 28. For only $65, you’ll get a full day of panels and craft sessions, a keynote by J. Robert Lennon, a free boxed-wine happy hour, a subscription to a literary journal of your choice, and a book from one of our participating authors. What more could you ask for? (That is a rhetorical question.)

Thanks for listening to the show. Tell your book-loving friends!

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Episode 39: Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

This week’s a Mike pick, so you know it’s gonna be good! A friend recommended Helen DeWitt about a year ago, and Mike finally got around to picking up her second novel, Lightning Rods, to give it a whirl. Her first book, The Last Samurai, is the better known (and more universally praised) but it’s also really thick, and sometimes Mike is lazy, and this seemed like an easier entry point. The book is less a traditional novel than a working-out of a (purposefully) ridiculous premise: what would happen if … you know what? Just listen to the episode, and we’ll explain it all.


Talking points include: sticks (both by themselves and in combination with stones), sexual harassment in the workplace, soup viscosity, proper workshop behavior, glory holes, and the ideal material for toilet seats. Fair warning: we’re even more full of digressions this week than usual, which we’ll blame on recording this just before we left for summer vacation.

As always, the episode is available to stream here on the site, or check us out in the iTunes store, where you can catch up on back episodes and subscribe, so that you never miss another new one. Also, please support our sponsor, Powell’s Books, which we might be visiting in person as you listen to this week’s installment of the show. They’ve got new books, used books, everything a book-loving person could want. And if you reach their site through ours, by clicking on any of the Powell’s links scattered around the page (including that lovely image of the novel embedded above) we’ll get a small percentage of every dollar you spend. Win win!


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