This Week's Show •

Cruel Britannia

This show first aired on May 19, 2022. George Orwell said, “It’s so easy to be witty about the British Empire.” As in the throwaway line that English people had conquered the world in a ...

This show first aired on May 19, 2022.

George Orwell said, “It’s so easy to be witty about the British Empire.” As in the throwaway line that English people had conquered the world in a fit of absentmindedness. No big deal. But that empire was no joke. Boris Johnson, in the Prime Minister’s office today, says he can’t forget that his nation over the last 200 years “has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries – that is: most of the members of the UN.” Our guest, the historian and prodigious imperial researcher Caroline Elkins has written a shocker of a big book about just how the English got to rule the world for two centuries, and it’s a gruesome story, all told. The title of her big book is Legacy of Violence, about the brutality of “thinking imperially” to this day.

Caroline Elkins.

Think of the British Empire in its day as a colossal trading company with the world’s number-one navy to police its traffic in pretty much everything—including about 3 million slaves to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, also a variety of notably addictive substances like opium and oil, then sugar and tobacco. It thought of itself as a distinctively liberal empire, civilizing the people it exploited, and everywhere spreading the language of Milton and Shakespeare, free speech and the rule of law. That is the imperial line that our guest Caroline Elkins set out to bury with the official records of a police state and its practice of terror that ruled half a billion people at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

This week’s show is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

This Week's Show •

Lovecraft Country

This show was first broadcast on October 31, 2019. H. P. Lovecraft’s frightful horror fiction—dated between Edgar Allan Poe’s and Stephen King’s—is the weirdest of the weird. Lovecraft found ravenous, man-eating rats in the walls ...

This show was first broadcast on October 31, 2019.

H. P. Lovecraft’s frightful horror fiction—dated between Edgar Allan Poe’s and Stephen King’s—is the weirdest of the weird. Lovecraft found ravenous, man-eating rats in the walls and foundations of our houses, and in our hearts and dreams just as creepily. For Halloween readers, he gave us ocean monsters the size of mountains; also, slippery scaly fish-people, flipping, flopping, and talking their way down the streets of Lovecraft’s favorite coastal towns near witchy Salem and the north of New England. There’s an idea in these stories—about human ignorance in an evil sea of telepathic enemies. There’s an open landscape, too, where horror fiction is growing a new crop.

Our Lovecraftians

Joyce Carol Oates (Credit: Dustin Cohen).

Paul La Farge (Credit: Carol Shadford).

Matt Ruff (Credit: Lisa Gold).

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Credit: Martin Dee).

If you’re sensing something ancient, cosmically vast, inescapable and frightening this Halloween season, you may be catching a Lovecraftian breeze. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a lonely, near-reclusive child of Providence, Rhode Island, who felt intimations of mind-melting infinity in New England of the twenties and thirties. The coast north of Boston inspired him with Gothic ideas, which he dished out in stories long and short for pulp magazines, thrilling readers who visited his mythical sites like Arkham, Miskatonic University, and Innsmouth—a fictional universe terrorized by creatures like Cthulhu, the ocean monster so complexly described that he cannot be pictured. Lovecraft specialized in such things: colors of no color, minerals not found on earth, languages that can’t be pronounced, and of course an unreadable and uncaring universe, “formed in fright,” as Melville put it speculatively. In Lovecraftian horror, the bleakness is doctrine.

This Week's Show •

We’ll Always Have Casablanca

This show was first broadcast on April 1, 2021. You must remember this, the song says. In fact, it’s hard to forget at Oscar time every April, that Casablanca, the Best Picture of 1942, was ...

This show was first broadcast on April 1, 2021.

You must remember this, the song says. In fact, it’s hard to forget at Oscar time every April, that Casablanca, the Best Picture of 1942, was an all-time pinnacle of black-and-white Hollywood. To this day, it’s the whole world’s favorite American movie, for so many odd reasons — like the love triangle that ends unhappily, with Humphrey Bogart walking away with a French policeman and the incandescent Ingrid Bergman arm-in-arm with her tiresome hero, not her lover. See it again, and it’s better than you remember: music, acting, Hollywood at its most writerly, steeped in the life-and-death issues of its own day, fascism, refugees on the run, the political and social DNA of America.

Leslie Epstein and A.S. Hamrah.

The hope of every Oscar season is that a movie from somewhere can do what Casablanca did in winning best picture in 1942. It was a factory product, and war propaganda too. But the dialog has poetry with goosebump feeling in it, and the staying power of high art. It has more famous lines than Hamlet, delivered by bit players and big stars, with only three American citizens in a film by and about immigrants. It’s an astonishing work of screenwriting in a story that flies blind, without an ending until the last shot. Our guest, the novelist Leslie Epstein, is our inside authority on Casablanca. The film critic A.S. Hamrah is our Mr. Outside.

This Week's Show •

Orwell’s Roses

This show first aired on November 11, 2021. George Orwell rests now with the immortal English writers. But why? For impact and influence, you could argue that Orwell in his novels and essays matched Shakespeare, ...

This show first aired on November 11, 2021.

George Orwell rests now with the immortal English writers. But why? For impact and influence, you could argue that Orwell in his novels and essays matched Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—John Lennon, too. Orwell called out the Big Brother barbarism of the twentieth century, but he was more than the author of 1984. He made it his life work to tell the truth about England, which he loved, and the British Empire, which he loathed. He gave us our twenty-first-century assignment: to rescue the language of public life from euphemism and lies, from our various Ministries of un-Truth, so as to save fairness, privacy, the pleasures and shared human interests that met his standard of a decent society. The writer Rebecca Solnit has a clue to getting the inner Orwell.  She says: think of him at the core as a gardener.

Rebecca Solnit.

Rebecca Solnit’s striking, fresh take on the late great George Orwell comes in a book-length essay titled Orwell’s Roses. The line that recurs, chapter after chapter, is this: “In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” He also kept a goat, and cared about his trees—factoids about Orwell, but maybe keys to his work. We know everything else about the prolific Orwell, the socialist who abominated the Soviet Union in his masterpiece, 1984.  Orwell, the Tory anarchist, he joked about himself, from the lower-upper-middle class.  Perhaps the most important all-round treasure of an English writer in the twentieth century, the wintry conscience of his time and still an endless pleasure to read, and admire anew. 

This Week's Show •

A New History of Humanity

This show first aired on December 2, 2021. Giant questions this hour, and a slew of fresh answers: Where do we humans come from? Who are we, after all? Where are we going? Was our ...

This show first aired on December 2, 2021.

Giant questions this hour, and a slew of fresh answers: Where do we humans come from? Who are we, after all? Where are we going? Was our pre-history a Garden of Eden, or a nasty war of survival, or some of both? Are we human beings good or evil, by the way? Pretty much the same, the world around, or many different varieties? An anthropologist and an archaeologist walked into a bar, so to speak—into an endless chain of emails, in fact, and produced a bestseller, chock full of Stone Age history and modern science. Their book is titled The Dawn of Everything. A main argument is that we’ve been one free-wheeling, improvisational species for fifty thousand years. A main question might be: when and how did we get to feel so stuck in this 21st century?

Make way this hour for the news of our human pre-history. Could it be: that our Stone Age ancestors were just as smart as we are, as playful and strong—if anything more inventive and adaptive than we, as they settled a planet and seeded a great variety of civilizations 10,000 years ago? The questions come from a surprise bestseller, The Dawn of Everything: it’s a 600-page brick of a book by an anthropologist and an archeologist, sharing fresh evidence and best guesses in A New History of Humanity. The sadness in reading it is that the American co-author David Graeber died as he was finishing the great work of his life. The relief is that his writing partner in London, David Wengrow, is still grappling with the puzzles they posed. 

This Week's Show •

Write Like the Russians

This episode was first broadcast on February 18, 2021. The invitation this hour, or maybe the dream, is to learn how to write short stories with the poignancy and power of the old Russian Masters, ...

This episode was first broadcast on February 18, 2021.

The invitation this hour, or maybe the dream, is to learn how to write short stories with the poignancy and power of the old Russian Masters, and how to become better versions of ourselves in the process. Anton Chekhov is our model writer; the modern American master George Saunders is our model reader and teacher, condensing his famous course for aspiring writers at Syracuse University. The Saunders idea—not quite a promise—is that Dr. Chekhov’s stories expand us morally. Follow his tricks and turns closely enough, and you’ll change your life. It’s something like the thought that just listening to Mozart’s sonatas can make a child smarter. Chekhov’s stories could make grown-ups less lonely, more effective, happier people.

George Saunders.

The literary master George Saunders shows us this hour, for starters, how to recognize a masterpiece in a mere short story. He’s also going to spell out how a handful of Russians—led by Dostoevsky, then Tolstoy, then Anton Chekhov—reset the standard of high art in the short story. George Saunders won high honors for his bestselling novel of three years ago, Lincoln in the Bardo (with Honest Abe in a sort of limbo, to grieve again with his son Willie, who died in the White House). Saunders is a triple threat: a writer first, but famous too as a reader of the classics and teacher of a celebrated writing course at Syracuse University, from which his new book is drawn. It’s called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, “in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life.”

This Week's Show •

The Joy and Genius of Erroll Garner

This show first aired on December 17, 2020. Erroll Garner, the jazz pianist, is undergoing an upward revaluation of the sort that artists dream of: a reputational transition forty-some years after he died. In his ...

This show first aired on December 17, 2020.

Erroll Garner, the jazz pianist, is undergoing an upward revaluation of the sort that artists dream of: a reputational transition forty-some years after he died. In his time, mid-twentieth century, Erroll Garner was a pop star on records and concert stages worldwide. He could make the piano sound like a big band, or an orchestra; and he composed enchanting new music on the fly. It was tune-centered, accessible—danceable, even. Label it easy jazz, if you weren’t listening too carefully. In the long aftermath, it’s players and critics who missed him the first time who’re finding much more in the Garner legacy: genius, for sure, but also truth, beauty, and miracles of spontaneity in a man of deep understanding.

Zooming with Robin D. G. Kelley.

The afterlife of an artistic legend is the thread running through this hour’s musical conversation. The artist in question is the one-off and self-taught jazz pianist Erroll Garner. He arrived from Pittsburgh on 52nd Street in New York as jazz was being retooled in the 1940s. He made one of the all-time best-selling jazz concert albums in the ’50s, toured the world in the ’60s, and died in the ’70s. Forty-some years later, respect for Erroll Garner is going deeper. It was always safe to say he was a jazz genius, but is it enough?

The cultural historian Robin D. G. Kelley at UCLA is the biographer of another piano giant Thelonious Monk. Around the Garner legacy, Robin Kelley’s has been engaging eminent players in today’s music in a series of podcasts. With the likes of Vijay Iyer, Chick Corea, Jason Moran, and Helen Sung (all pianists) and the drummer Terri Lynn Carrington, Robin begins each time with the question, “Who is Erroll Garner to you?”

This Week's Show •

Hail to Thee, Blyth Spirit

Mark Blyth, the people’s economist, to the rescue. We’ve got tribulations of money and power to be decoded, in what can feel like wartime. Sanctions or penalties for the warfare make economic waves, too. Inflation ...

Mark Blyth, the people’s economist, to the rescue. We’ve got tribulations of money and power to be decoded, in what can feel like wartime. Sanctions or penalties for the warfare make economic waves, too. Inflation spiking, recession coming. China rising, as always, and now our mortgage rates heading up sharply; the world economy in complex transition. Trend lines point to de-globalization of supply chains and trade, a suspension of easy money, a dizzy disenchantment with billionaires everywhere. Mark Blyth is the guest you remember: how’s to forget the Scots brogue in quick-time, the immigrant idealism, the working-class loyalty in the son of a butcher from Dundee?

What we’re talking about is money and power, meaning the political economy we all live in, with some anxiety. Mark Blyth is our authority—professor of political economy at Brown University—and he’s the noisy know-it-all with the working-class Scottish accent in our virtual pub conversation on Open Source. He’s revered around here for his mastery of (a) markets and (b) the vernacular that makes money and power a plausible story for the rest of us. Mark brings an understudy this time, our sometime colleague Brendan Greeley, who has just stepped away from finance journalism to pursue his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton. The news, so-called, this Fourth of July week is not encouraging: consumer “sentiment,” according to the Wall Street Journal, is as low as it’s been since the recovery from World War II; the world’s biggest economy is slowing down, inflation spiking to a 40 year peak, interest rates on mortgages heading up, sure to slow construction and home sales. Those are the headlines. The mood in the pub is something else.

This is the concluding installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

This Week's Show •

Stopping the War

Four months into the war in Ukraine, 20 weeks of radio talk about it, feels like time for a deep breath: an hour to look hard at a painful stalemate, a poisonous war that bodes ...

Four months into the war in Ukraine, 20 weeks of radio talk about it, feels like time for a deep breath: an hour to look hard at a painful stalemate, a poisonous war that bodes hunger, maybe famine, surely economic wreckage, on top of grotesque pain and death and the smashing of Ukraine itself. “Painful stalemate” can be translated as ripe for resolution. What we see, though, is more money for more advanced US weaponry, blank-check spending for a proxy war with Russia. Western Europe is impatient with the war, but unready for peace until Vladimir Putin has been punished for a monstrous and illegal invasion. Only Pope Francis says loud and clear that war is not the way, that the time to talk is now.

Who’s winning? What’s working? Do we get it yet? Can you read a scorecard on a grain war, arguably an insane war, a proxy war, a war to revalidate war as a way to decide things—a war that doesn’t know how to stop itself, a war that was nearly negotiated away just before it broke out, a war in which nobody now is calling for ceasefire or talks? How much trouble has Ukraine been drawn into? How much can Ukraine take? This is the wrap-up hour 20 in our broadcast / podcast series, In Search of Monsters, in collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We’ll be testing the Quincy watchword of “restraint” in foreign policy before the hour is done, and we’ll get the tart Russian-American commentary of Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter on the Russian and American history hanging over the players today. We begin with the dauntless Jeffrey Sachs, development economist and lifelong trouble-shooter at large: with the blessing of Pope Francis and the United Nations, Jeff Sachs led a conference on Ukraine at the Vatican two weeks ago and issued a global call for peacemakers.

This is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

This Week's Show •

Unofficial China

Between the US and China, you can feel that the chill is on among the chieftains, spoiling for a fight over Taiwan or trade or just top billing. But what about the people? Two peoples ...

Between the US and China, you can feel that the chill is on among the chieftains, spoiling for a fight over Taiwan or trade or just top billing. But what about the people? Two peoples bound by resentments and admiration, both deep-seated and heartfelt, and under it all, some natural affinities in hard work and competitive play – remember: ping-pong and basketball. What would informed empathy feel like, between the two biggest kids on the world playground, looking into the eyes of the other? The conversation this radio-podcast hour is not from the classroom, much less the war room. We’re in our Zoom room with American searchers who’ve got China in their bones. A heavy-metal rock-star and a Yale historian of “China in the World.”

We’re listening for affinities and anxieties, the attitudes in the U.S. and China that could complicate relations in a transition. We’ve heard the official line from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who can make the challenge from China sound like a threat: China has “a top-tier fighting force,” Blinken said, and it aims to “become the world’s leading power.” The question this hour is: Do the people, here and there, know better, or have a different intuition? Our guests are teachers, talkers, listeners in both cultures. Kaiser Kuo is a celebrity in digital China; first with the heavy-metal rock band Tang Dynasty in the ’80s, now with the Sinica podcast from his American base in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We open with Jing Tsu, the cross-cultural historian at Yale – her masterpiece so far recounts the literary and typographical breakthrough that made Chinese writing modern.

This is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.