Sunday, May 29, 2016

EP 020 Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai, Lightning Rods, and, with Ilya Gridnef, Your Name Here. The Last Samurai, originally released by Miramax Books in 2000, is being released in a new edition by New Directions in May 2016. For many years, the book was passed along in secondhand copies among cognoscenti, and I'm glad to see it back in print.
Sibylla, a single mother from a long line of frustrated talents, has unusual ideas about child rearing. Yo Yo Ma started piano at the age of two; her son starts at three. J.S.Mill learned Greek at three; Ludo starts at four, reading Homer as they travel round and round the Circle Line. A fatherless boy needs male role models; so she plays the film of Seven Samurai as a running backdrop to his childhood. While Sibylla types out back copies of Carpworld to pay the rent, Ludo, aged five, moves on to Hebrew, Arabic and Japanese, aerodynamics and edible insects of the world - they might come in handy, if he can just persuade his mother he's mature enough to know his father's name. He is bound for knowledge of a less manageable sort, not least about his mother's past. And at the heart of the book is the boy's changing relationship with Sibylla - contradictory, touching and tender.
Today, we talk about the desire to choose your own parents, your own publishing team, and your own cafe.

Photo credit: Helen DeWitt

A small correction: in our discussion of coffee drinks at Neues Ufer, the drink served in a small ceramic bowl was incorrectly identified as Kremkaffee; the correct drink name is Milchkaffee. I remember ordering Kaffe Krem in Germany at one point, which I suppose would be coffee-flavored cream. Personally, I've always liked the Dutch phrase for cafe au lait: Koffie verkeerd, "spoiled coffee" or "coffee done wrong".

Over on her site, she mentions some verbal tics of her own that annoy her. I am completely immune to hearing these & think she sounds wonderful. On the other hand, I writhe every time I hear my own voice saying anything on any recording: I always say that I have a face for radio and a voice for silent film.

If you enjoyed this interview, you can also watch a short video interview with Helen by the team over at The Paris Review, done earlier this Spring, but released this month:


Show Notes 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

EP 019 Luca Turin on the Secrets of Scent and the Scientific Method

Luca Turin is a biophysicist and expert in the sense of smell. He is best known to the scientific community as the proponent of the vibrational theory of olfaction: that smell receptors detect the vibrational frequencies of the molecular bonds of parts of the scent molecule. This theory represents an alternative to the older shape-based theory of smell: that scent molecules bind to specific receptors that conform to the shape of the scent molecule. The debate on this topic is detailed in Turin's The Secret of Scent, and Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent.

He is also the author, with his partner Tania Sanchez, of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which provides a sensual and witty look at over 1,000 commercially available perfumes. He also writes perfume criticism in several locations online, including at, and is a scent molecule designer and consultant to the industry.

Links and bonus materials

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Links for Later 5-7-16

  1. Tim and Alex Heathfield Vavilova found out that their parents were Russian spies. Now, they've lost their Canadian citizenship. Crazy story.
  2. John Gardner, "Personal Renewal"
  3. Delmore Schwartz, "The First Morning of the Second World"
  4. Problems with John Cochrane's WSJ editorial on opportunities for economic growth.
  5. Profile of Navy SEAL Charlie Keating IV, who was killed by ISIS while training Peshmerga, and who was the grandson of Charles Keating of the S&L crisis fame.
  6. How to beat procrastination: do a small, concrete step toward the big, scary, abstract goal. (Raise your vision, lower the stakes strategy.)
  7. Farnam Street: "What We Can Learn from the Prolific Mr. Asimov", plus Asimov on new ideas.
  8. Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex reviews Albion's Seed, discusses the impact of the four early cultures of America: Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borderers.