Book Review – Milkman by Anna Burns

Book Review  – Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Booker Prize 2018)

On numerous occasions since I was a pubescent tyke I have attempted to read James Joyce’s  Ulysses. The first was at 13, when a friend of mine and I, acting on the advice of a rakish older teenager, tried to find the reputed purple prose and forbidden porn between its covers (we didn’t, of course). Then in later years, more attempts, borne out of guilt and curiosity and masochism. I never made it past more than a few chapters, getting lost in the dense jungle of words and paragraphs, endless, rambling, chaotic, a steamy thicket of impenetrable literary flora.

I finally admitted defeat and moved on.

And then, a couple of years ago, I went to see the inimitable Jenny Steyn acting (solo); 90 minutes of explosively performed Molly Bloom from Ulysses. And she did it, unsurprisingly, in Irish. With that accent reeking of history and famine and whiskey and poetry. The curled ‘r’s’ and gentle lilts and hills and valleys splattered with metaphors and allusions. And James Joyce suddenly came to life. That’s it I thought! You have to read Joyce in Irish! Not English. Irish (the accent)!

And so it was with Milkman, this year’s Booker prize winner. Called ‘incomprehensible’  and ‘impossibly dense’ by some reviewers, I decided, fuggit, I am going in with my machete. And I will read it in Irish (I am no good at speaking accents, but I can hear them, the song and cadence in every sentence). On the rare occasions where I lost concentration switched to English it indeed became, um, leaden, opaque.

So this is like nothing else you will ever read, if you decide to uncrate your old Irish sword and fearlessly wade in to battle.

The best way I can describe this book it is one part Joyce (the close-packed cornucopia of words, sentences falling over each other, paragraphs sweeping endlessly over many pages, the joyous vernacular – (a ‘numbance’, an attitude of feeling numb, for example, or the emphatic use of  ‘auld’ for ‘old’, written and pronounced just as spelled, just slightly differently than the boring english version).

And then one part Joseph Heller (weird and wobbly characters like ‘tablets-girl’ or ‘Somebody McSomebody’ or ‘nuclear-boy’ only mentioned early, but making themselves loudly and colourfully known only later, like Major Major Major in Catch-22). And the deep, black, screaming hilarity of the most unfunny of situations.

And then one part Kafka. Or maybe four parts Kafka. The world which unfolds makes Kafka’s cockroach seem common.

Our heroine (never actually named, like all of the characters in this book) is an 18 year-old eccentric, walking around her 1970’s Irish town (also not named, and neither is the IRA or Northern Ireland or Britain – only ‘renouncers of state’ and ‘the country over the water’). She walks with her head down, reading books, reading more books and not talking to anyone. That’s all she does, other than occasionally visit her ‘maybe-boyfriend’.

We soon find out why. These are deep in the times of the troubles. Everyone is suspect. Or could be suspect. Or should be suspect Or is made to be suspect. Traitors are a rumour away, a wrong smile, a misplaced glance, a wrong address. There are bombs and beatings and tar-and-featherings and kneecappings and death and disappearance. One day you are just living a small life and the next you are branded a traitor. By people who are perhaps, maybe also maybe-traitors. Or could be. Or could be made to be.

So bewildered is our heroine by this illogical and Bedlamic world into which she is forced to inhabit that all she can do is read and walk and talk to no one and look at no one. And have sex with maybe-boyfriend, who loves cars and has a workshop and has a acquired a turbo-charger from a car from ‘over-the-water’ and so his neighbour wonders whether he is a traitor and so…

Into her cloistered world steps Milkman, near the book’s opening. Not a milkman (although there is a milkman in the book, an important one). No, Milkman is a renouncer-of-state, a big shot paramilitary. And old and scary and slimy. And he wants her, because if you are a big shot in the renouncers-of-state, you take what you want, including pretty eccentric and vulnerable 18 year-olds who finally have no other choice.

And so the book takes wings of a sort, with our heroine stopping at every thought and conundrum and possibility, turning it this way and that, her head a jumble of maybes and surely-nots and what-ifs. And lets not forget the many, many sisters and brothers-laws and widowed mom and ballroom-dancing children and slaughtered dogs and decapitated cat’s head and, god, ach, ach, this book is near impossible to review, even though the plot is deceptively simple. 

So, like my first attempts at reading James Joyce I am giving up on this review.

But if you choose to read it, read it in Irish. It is exhausting, astonishing, beautiful and you will leave it in a numbance.

Book Review – Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Book Review – Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

One of the great good fortunes of my life is that I have never been visited by great loss or grief, but having been a proximal observer many times (and increasingly often as the years progress) it often seems to me that my rope must soon run out.

This slim memoir (117 pages), published in 2013, takes on the subject of grief and mourning with such surgical precision (and from the vantage point of the closest of personal circumstance) that I will surely return to this book as a guide and hip flask if and when I am similarly struck down.

Julian Barnes married the literary agent Pat Kavanagh (originally South African) in 1978 and remained happily and deeply committed to her for 32 years until she died very suddenly in 2010. He does not get into the details of her death; we find out only that there were mere weeks between the discovery of her medical pathology to her final moment. The book is not about the process of her dying, it is about the overwhelming (and impossible) task of accepting, wrestling and understanding the grief that accompanies a loss of a loved one. It is at once wrenching and panoramic, and in the hands of Barnes’s elegant and unwavering language, even more so, sometimes to the point of the reader having to stop mid-sentence to look away, as if from terrible car wreck.

First two thirds of this books are about other matters – ballooning in the late 18th century, early photography, Sarah Bernhardt and a specific love affair with one English gentlemen named Thomas Burnaby. As interesting and skilfully described as these historical events are, their tether to the death of Ms Kavanagh and Barnes’s descent into its aftermath are not evident until the last part of the book, where he launches directly into her death and his emotional drowning in the wake of it. It is described in finely-grained intellectual and emotional minutiae, and carried by the sort of language mastery for which Barnes is acclaimed.

This is naked microscopic introspection at its most brutal, its pain hard to witness, its eloquence soaring and melancholic. I can really only recommend this book for anyone who has encountered loss and grief, or like myself, has escaped it and wishes some to archive some wisdom for when it arrives.

Podcast review – Caliphate (New York Times)

A review – Caliphate, a New York Times podcast
Moving from my usual book reviews to a new media, I must talk about Caliphate, an NYT podcast, similarly feted (and voluminously downloaded). It struck me as I listened to these 10 episodes on a recent trip with my family that the Age of Enlightenment (mainly the 18th century) in which we understood human reason to have taken root in many disciplines is bullshit. This podcast clearly demonstrates the ease with which the determined and driven can turn men (mainly men) into monsters. I refused to listen to this for the longest time, I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought it would be preaching to the converted. Perhaps I was apprehensive about listening to the worst of things.
But if you take the time to listen to this 10-episode series, probably the best written and best on-the-ground reporting (US, Canada, Syria, Iraq, etc) I have ever encountered on any medium (the reporter’s name is Rukmini Callimachi),, you will enter the following worlds:
You will enter the world of ISIS, deep and dark and fetid. Hearing people people who who believe that raping 11 year-old girls is a sacred act (there is a whole theological justification there, they pray before doing it). That flogging a man’s back 150 times at full force with a belt encrusted with 2-inch studs is fair punishment for wearing his pants too long. That rolling over a live bound man in a tank is an expression of god-graced justice. And they believe that this is right with the same absolute fervour that you believe it is wrong.
You will enter the world of a middle class Canadian university student from a loving and not particularly religious family, who signs up for this and eventually commits atrocities without question.
You will enter the world of recruiting, and how scientifically shaped it is – these are not fools, not wild Imams ranting hatred. Every single word of those online sermons is calculated like a complex architecture. By the end, when it is over, the potential recruit is complete putty. It is a working algorithm for radicalisation, nothing less.
You will enter the world of how young recruits are trained in committing atrocities – also very carefully graduated until a boy cutting off a man’s head requires no more emotional effort than squashing a bug underfoot.
You will enter the world of the Isis bureaucrats – better able to provide clean streets, water, electricity than any municipality that we ever encounter here (quickly, efficiently, without corruption and with great technical skill.
You will enter a world where fear is the greatest convincer. Nothing seems to work as quickly and as efficiently. An entire population of 12 million (at its height) completely subjugating themselves without any resistance at all.
And you will enter a world of dogged reporting and story-crafting at its absolute finest.
This is a remarkable journey. A lot of it truly revolting, sickening, hard to listen to. Most of it just an extraordinary look how small the gap between reason and its opposite, about how utterly pliable we are are, and at least in my case, how dangerous any sort of faith is, because it is so easy to take faith and warp to any arbitrary agenda. It just takes skilful leadership and convincing oratory. We know this story, it is old as religion, and it works as well as ever in this story.
Finally, it struck me that most of the world, particularly here in SA, look at America and see Trump. I look at America and this American, an Arab-speaking Muslim-born, female, weight-challenged (joking about being fat-shamed by Isis-trolls) heroine reporter, Rukmini Callimachi.
Listen to this, you will emerge from it transformed in ways you did not expect.

Book Review – Florida by Lauren Groff

Book Review – Florida by Lauren Groff
Steven Boykey Sidley
If you put a gun to my head and asked – best novel in the last decade – I would go with Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Imagine my little Snoopy dance then when I heard that Ms. Groff had produced her latest, Florida. Not a novel, but a collection of short stories, all somewhat connected to Florida, her home state.
Short stories are a new flirtation of mine, I have come to them late. It is a special art, rendered naked by brevity. Every word counts and there is no time or length for sag and lard.
It is an offbeat and eccentric collection, awash with cocked-head frowns and gentle melancholy, swollen with unusual allusions, freighted with the author’s anxieties (especially around her two boys, and children in general) and fuelled by some the most unusual and sharply-spiced sentences you will read in the modern literary canon. At this level she is like Anne Michaels, who wrote Fugitive Pieces. The writing is like poetry, it power lies in the sentence and phrase, in the stones rather than the structure.
This was a surprise to me. Fates and Furies was a volatile, volcanic, sexy and lurid love story. Florida is a quiet contemplation about life and death and parenting and marriage, often filtered through the hot wet swamps of Northern Florida. That these two books came from the same author is testament to her diversity – both memorable in completely different ways.
So there is the story of her late night insomniac walks in her Florida neighbourhood while her gentle husband takes on the care her babies, a task for which she feels unprepared. And a swamp shack-born boy, Jude, wrecked by his abusive snake-loving father, his unfulfilled life racing by us in a matter of pages as he finally returns at the end of his life to the swamp house of his birth to seek his father’s spirit. There is an injured mother and her two boys, trapped in a hurricane in a house alone, neighbours wisely fled. And two little girls abandoned by dissolute and crime-ravaged parents and cousins alone on an unpopulated island, trying to survive starvation and loneliness, bound only to each other. A young woman losing her way, dropping from university into homelessness and hopelessness and finally gently hinted better future. A woman talking to dead lovers and late husband and late mother about the life she wondered whether she had lived rightly. And finally a mother and her two sons chasing ghosts in France, a rumination on looking and not finding.
Joyous stuff, like Fates and Furies? Not at all, but there is a thick and wet atmosphere that pervades all of it, clinging to the reader like a fine sweat as we live the character’s internal lives, pervaded by their small hopes and many disappoints and heavy regrets. More importantly, these small stories seem to be invaded by their author. Her talents, her bewilderments, her continual search for a life’s meaning as she clings to life rafts of a gentle husband and innocent children.
So I continue to be in Lauren Groff’s thrall now, my appreciation of her spread wider than before, even though this book is more distant, less immediate, less fun. But every bit as profound.

Book Review – Less by Andrew Sean Greer

One of the challenges in reviewing the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is that it has done exactly that –  won one of two most prestigious prizes in English fiction (the other being the Booker Prize), and so I can assume that some very wise and well-read judges had made this decision for sound reasons. The other challenge is to read through the hyperbolic shouts that adorn the cover, most from writers who command a large acreage of my literary mindscape, and to try and maintain objectivity in the face of them. And then there are the hundreds of reviews, which I would prefer not to read before I do my own. Which strikes me a tad ascetic, now that I think about it.

So. Less. The title takes its etymology from the last name of Arthur Less, and double entendres abound, the surname nestling in warmly with Mr. Less’s diminished life. And also joining a list of literary novels whose books are named after (and robustly inhabited by) their protagonists – Bellow’s Herzog, Lewis’s Babbitt, Williams’s Stoner. Arthur Less is introduced as a minor novelist, about to turn 50, and feeling a battered by a a betrayal of love in particular, and life in general. And so he embarks on a trip around the world – Mexico, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan. The reader tags along, and finds out about his life and loves lost along the way.

Arthur Less – lovelorn (twice over). Insecure,  Lonely, in a self-imposed sort of way. Existentially crushed. Lost.  Such a character should sink under the weight of his own disappointments and frailties, but a strange thing happened in this book. First I found him bland. Then I felt sorry for him. Then I started to like him and root for hm. And then I really, really cared what happened to him. It was a sort of magic spun by Greer; an excellent literary trick.

There was other literary magic too. The narrator, sometimes ubiquitous, sometimes attached and occasionally (and weirdly) dropping into first person and directly addressing the reader in the second person (‘You would think that Less…’). It takes no small accomplishment to pull that off, and Greer does. We find out why in the last chapter’s blinding reveal, more on that later. The unusual voice of the narrator turns our to be the key which finally opens the door of the novel.

There are few women in this book. Less is gay. His fiends are gay. His life is spent mainly among men. There are lovers, affairs, one-nighters. We discover that Less’s great love was a genius Pulitzer prize-winning poet, an older man who leaves his wife for Less, thirty years before the start of this story. And then a second great love, a younger man named Freddie, who suddenly leaves Less to marry another younger man, This world of gays and homosexual love is a little outside of my reading (and my life’s experience). It was edifying to peer inside that world.

So what is the book about? Less’s failed affairs, and the imminent wedding of his recent lover Freddie of ten years has forced Less to run away,. To literary festivals and award ceremonies and desert tents and teaching engagements and magazine assignments all over the world. We perch inside his head, as his thoughts range chaotically from his youth to his present, the narrative darting between his failures and fealties, his old affections and new afflictions. It seems to be plotless trek, but one on which we are pleased to hitch a ride, accompanied by this tall, blond, balding and bewildered lesser man of letters, oxymoronically referred to by the narrator as ‘little Less’.

And then there is the last chapter. I do not want to spoil, but it was wonderful, surprising, uplifting and moving – a virtuoso emergence of a hidden plot, shyly replacing Less’s world with the world of narrator. An astonishing sleight of hand that takes this novel into a place that few others dare to go, and which certainly sealed the accolades that have come its way.

There were many fine and surprising things about this thin novel. The slow revealing of the Less himself. The writing – new, fresh, uncluttered, wry, sometimes very funny. The shorts spurts of Fellini-esque experiences in the different continents, beautifully nuanced and understated, like Less himself. Nuggets of wisdom and self-knowledge suddenly appearing briefly on the page as Less travels onwards.

Was it is the best novel of the year? Probably not, at at least to my mind (The Nix was far more worthy, although that may have been last year).

Was it a great and enduring work of fiction? Perhaps.

Was it a fine and satisfying and pleasurable work of literature that I would recommend?

Yes, it was. It was. Definitely.

Book Review – Things Even Gonzalez Can’t Fix by Christy Chilimigras

One of the genres I generally avoid is the childhood memoir of trauma and pain. Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because of the grinding repetitiveness of abusive, neglectful, selfish or drug-addicted parents and relatives. I have read enough of them to find them generally depressing and too drenched with loathing of many stripes.

But this book is truly astonishing, and heralds the arrival of one of the most exciting new SA voices I have read in a long time. I read the first paragraph of the book by accident and it took my breath away, and so I continued over one long day and night to the end. My breath only returned much later.

Chlimigras’s command of words and meaning and metaphor is endlessly thrilling as she recounts a bewildering life to date (she is now 24). Her incomprehension at having to absorb the casual callousness and unkindness of those she loved (and still loves) is so well drawn, so literary, so profoundly expressed that I found myself partially hypnotised and partially sickened by as I watched her grow from scared and confused child to damaged adult.

But it is not really Chilimigras’s bruised history which recommends this book. It is also not the cast of characters (barely hidden by pseudonym, fully formed, flawed and fucked up), some of them them explicitly cruel, and others merely broken on the rack their own weaknesses.

It is more the style in which her chaotic life is splattered across the page, a sort of narrative Jackson Pollack. It brings to mind everyone from Hunter Thomson to Lori Groff to Jack Kerouac to Irvine Welsh. It is the way in which the reader staggers and cries and roots for the author, saying – your life will get better, it will get better, even though we know we are simply throwing optimistic sparkles into the air. We, and Chilimigras have no idea whether her life will get any better, or whether she will ever fully heal.

There is redemption in this book too. Her older sister, who is pseudo-named Soul & Protector, the lifeline to which her hope is tethered. Her wild and drunken friends as she grows into a teenager. The extended Greek family cocooning her as best they can with concern and food. And the author’s own threadbare resilience, resolute even against the worst of her own life’s choices.

This young author has just started, this is her debut. She can go anywhere with this talent. I hope she moves away from memoir and writes great fiction.

But it really doesn’t matter, as long as she keeps writing. Just read the first paragraph.

Things Even Gonzalez Can’t Fix is published by MFBooks. CC writes about sex and relationships for Cosmopolitan and other SA magazines.

Book Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill

Book Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill

Steven Boykey Sidley

Every year I try to read at least one door stop. 500 pages or more. The last few years – 4th of July Creek, The Goldfinch, City of Fire, & Sons, Purity. It is sort of a toxic cure for me, who reads slowly. It is a disciplined commitment of a month or more. A forced marathon of sorts, in a world were ever shorter amusements are endlessly on offer. When I get to the end of these long reads (in this case over 600 pages), I feel as though the accomplishment is as much mine as it is the author’s.

So as usual, I am late to the game. The author of the book, 40-year old Nathan Hill has already been to SA, for the Open Book festival. There have been a number of local reviews. And so I toss my tardy hat into the ring.

Before I review, a couple of factoids. Nathan Hill took ten years to write this, his first novel. After moving to New York in his late twenties he was swamped with rejection from agents and publishers. And then on moving out of tiny apartment in New York to move across town, everything was stolen from his car. Including every word of he had ever written, and all of his backups. He had to get clothes donated by friends. A difficult start for a novelist who then perseveres for TEN MORE YEARS before getting his first publishing deal. That story alone is worthy of its own fiction.

A book of this length needs to sprawl. Breadth is the fuel of such a long tale, the sort of breadth that requires of the author the ability to leap and somersault and reach across time and character and location and pay attention to stitching and borders and tangential excursions and returns. And so it is with this book, not perfect, a little rambly in parts, but overwhelmed by so much brilliance that lapses fade into only minor quibbles. Dickens, said John Irving. This writer is like Dickens. A writer who knew how to sprawl.

And sprawl it does. Over 50 years, backwarding and forwarding, from the small town midwest to Chicago to New York to Norway. It sprawls across past tense and present tense and first person and third person and internal and external monologue. It sprawls across characters who never meet each other and whose lives are full and sad or angry or resigned or shocking or funny. It sprawls across the most poignant of tragedy and true milk-through-nose hilarity. It sprawls across politics and gender issues and sexuality and love and family and betrayal and video game addiction and rough sex and child abuse and a confused America. It sprawls across the English language, acrobatic, virtuosic, at times controlled and assured and at times chaotic and undisciplined. There were times when I thought to myself, mouth agape, is there is anything this author cannot do? It was true that there were parts that went on a bit (the original draft was 1200 pages). There were scenes and characters, while brilliant, which did not push the story forward at all, and seemed like separate short stories gleefully inserted because the author couldn’t bear to kill his literary children.

But by the time I got to the end with its truly face-slapping and a tad labyrinthine reveal and tie-up, I thought, this is is sorcery. It is so glorious and magical and overflowing with, well, the bewildering stuff of life, there was almost a relief when I reached the last page.

So what it is about? the book focusses on two main characters. Samuel Andersen-Anderson, a bored and distracted assistant professor of English in Chicago. And then his mother Faye, who had abandoned the family in the sixties, when Samuel was 11. The entire book is propelled by the story of why she left, and funnelled immutably and combustively into a single epiphanal event in 1968 – the Chicago Democratic National Convention, a fulcrum of American politics and culture, from which the country has never really recovered. Jumping forward, a national incident occurs in the Chicago of 2011 – of a middle-aged woman throws rocks at a Trump-like presidential candidate, to be immediately arrested and charged with felonies of all stripe. It is Samuel’s mother Faye, who he has not heard of in 40 years. Between these two events an entire world unfolds, and the book reaches for the status of Great American novel, a sad and funny and ruthless and satiric and profound story of 50 years of that bruised country, what it was, what it has become and what redemption may yet still  gleam on its horizon.

This book is not for everyone; one has to truly love the US (as I do) to really love this book. This book is, for me, everything that fiction should be rash, risky, flawed, ugly, melancholy, enraged, funny, surprising, beautiful and transformative.

There is a long holiday coming up. You have a few weeks. You have no excuse. Run a marathon.

Book Review – Day Without End by Sebastian Barry

Book Review – Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Steven Boykey Sidley
I have always had a irrational distaste for books written entirely in a deep vernacular, not so much in the dialogue, but more in the narrative sections, perhaps driven by a judgement that the descriptions in streetwise or pidgin or dialect or the diminished vocabulary of the uneducated would flatten the horizons of language.
This book proves me poorer for my prejudice.
The hero and first-person narrator of this book is Thomas McNulty, a young boy grown up hard and unschooled in the tragic and famine-ravaged Ireland of the early 1800s. Jumping ship after the death of all who love him he finds himself penniless and friendless and starving in America. A chance meeting during a search for a sleeping shelter brings him to the equally young John Cole who will become his lifelong brother-in-arms and more.
The story and the writing achieve two remarkable feats. The first is the language, melded from poor grammar, from Irish gutter slang, from old words put to new use and from the soaring sentences of Thomas’s simple but profound imagination without the author having to rely on any of the language of high literature. Barry just keeps this up – on and on for pages at a time, without flagging and stalling or digressing. I have never read anything quite like it, so unusual is its source, this man-child Thomas McNulty, buffeted cruelly (and a occasionally kindly) from a deeply felt life.
The second feat is the weaving in of a transgender theme, unusual (if not unique) in a book that takes place in centre of this unkempt 19th Century America, heaving in acts of quiet genocide during the Indian Wars around Missouri and then, later, its own war on itself, the Civil War. This trans plot stands out as a bright thread in this love story, a little surprising perhaps, but bringing its own colour squarely to the plot, completely unhampered by any sermonising on the politics of gender.
Over the course of the book, the bulk of which stretches about 15 – 20 years, Thomas Macnulty and John Cole and a small Indian girl orphaned by slaughter find their way through both the harshness and charity of strangers, the heart-breaking bond of loyalty between men who killed innocents, cold, starvation, betrayals and a threadbare peace to an end that uplifts and ennobles, the way all grand love stories should.
Both the so-called Indian Wars and Civil Wars are wrenchingly rendered though the simplicity of Thomas’s eyes, giving a most personal view of this period’s history and its emotionless brutalities. And the story and plot which winds through these these historical events is tense, clever and very different to the usual historical fiction fare. I will not forget the cast of characters – even the lesser ones (a remote mining town dance hall proprietor, an German interlocutor between the army and tribes, a grief-stricken major, a ‘Negro’ cannon bearer).
Sebastian Barry, 62, has written 7 novels and 13 plays. He was won the Costa Book of the Year (among numerous others) and is a perennial shortlister (Man Booker, three times, including this year).
It is my first time into the breach with him, but it will not be my last.

Podcasts – A Praise Song (from the Sunday Times July 30, 2017)

Podcasts – A Praise Song

Steven Boykey Sidley

This morning at about 7:30 I spent about an hour learning about the difference between dark matter and dark energy and why they are important. Then about 9:30 on the way to work I learned about the history of shoes. Then around lunchtime, caught in a traffic jam, I learned about Piltdown Man –  the greatest paleoanthroplogical fraud of all time. Finally, on a quick visit to the shops, I listened to a short story by the great Raymond Carver.  Tomorrow I will start the day with an intimate eavesdrop on the sad life of a crack-addicted young single mother.

My life is divided into two ages – pre-podcast and post-podcast. The first was a dark, silent intellectually-starved cave of threadbare opinions and general bewilderment. And now, well, I am an autodidact gaily romping through fields of enlightenment, bursting with facts and figures and insights and new knowledge and freshly unearthed emotions. (This, I have noticed, can be very annoying to other people).

But still. I can tell you about the first surgery under anaesthetic ever, and who did it and how. And I can tell you that Leonard Cohen spent 15 years writing and rewriting Hallelujah before it became a hit.

OK, I’ll stop now.

Podcasts started in earnest in 2001, brought to the world by Los Angeles programmer Dave Winer and media personality Adam Curry (although there are many other claimants). But it was an oddity, attended by geeks and a couple of visionaries and tinkerers and early adopters until the confluence iPhones and cars with Bluetooth, sometime in the late 2000s.  And suddenly you could climb into your car and listen to a radio broadcast on a topic of your choice, for free, no ads, no program schedule.

This may strike a reader as a small matter, a peripheral technological innovation amongst the tsunami of new stuff that has arrived to distract and amuse us. No, my dear friends, this not the case. The era of podcasts is here, and at least in my case, it is life-altering. So much so that my new novel Free Association chose as its hero a podcaster in Los Angeles, and uses his periodic podcasts off which to bounce the narrative. And even though I was already a podcast fanatic, I did a little research in preparation for the novel.

So consider the following. 64 million Americans listen to at least one podcast per month. 42 million Americans listen every week. 230 million people worldwide have downloaded Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast Serial  in the last 18 months (this beats the biggest music and film hits). Podcast downloads have grown by double digits every year for 15 years (the envy of other media). Listeners used to be young, but are now distributed across the age spectrum.  9 million Americans listen to six shows per week. I listen to over twenty.

Podcasts have become one of  the biggest media success stories in America this century and their acceleration has now started in Europe and other territories, including our corner of the world (with local titles like Lesser Known Somebodies, First Person, Alibi and Sound Africa, amongst others). Even celebrity columnists and writers like Marianne Thamm and Daryl Bristow-Bovey and Mandy Wiener are dipping their adventurous toes in these waters. 

The spread of of topics is pretty much endless. Whatever your interests, there are podcasts to suit. And more interestingly, there are brilliant podcasts utterly outside of your areas of interest. That is where some of the gold lies. Biology is a subject in which I had little knowledge or specific interest previously. And now? Go on, ask me anything about the wasp parasite (oh, that’s the wasp larvae, whose egg is laid in the bark of tree, later to be consumed by its host, another species of wasp. It then lives in its host’s brain, turning it into a zombie, feeding off it, and eventually bursting out of its forehead). There are over 300,000 podcasts. And while there are many forgettable offerings in that long tail, the best of them define a new art form.

So why? What make them so compelling? Some readers may remember a simpler time before all of this electronic stuff, perhaps even before TV, where families would huddle around Springbok radio to listen to No Place to Hide (remember Sergei?) or Squad Cars (‘they prowl the empty streets at night’). Beautifully produced dramas which I would look forward to all day at school, discuss endlessly with my friends, dream about, nightmare about. That 15 minutes of inhabiting that exquisitely aural world, replete with music and sound effects and dramatic dialogue would leave me helpless with wonder and excitement.

The podcasts that I listen to now, both in the worlds of fiction and fact, have that same effect. I long for a traffic jam, the worse the better. I used to go to the gym to see to my health, but now I go to pedal and listen (I have been known to turn my car around and go home if I have forgotten my headphones). Airplane journeys zip by on a cloud of finely-dressed knowledge mainlined directly into my brain. The last car trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town turned me into a near world authority in genetic engineering.

The best of these podcasts are true works of art. Even the non-fiction offerings. Beautifully sculpted, edited, practiced and spooled out with the same interplay of tension and resolution that one expects of the best of theatre. It is a vastly different experience to reading – somehow more efficient, employing different parts of the brain, I suspect. A new way to commit experience to memory, to draw neural linkages that didn’t exist before, to find context and comfort in understanding. It is, more of often than not, an intensely pleasurable experience.

Which brings me to the the question some you would certainly want to know – what I listen to, and why? I have tinkered and re-sculpted my playlist extensively over the past five years, and will probably continue to do so, but here is the current line-up:

Sam Harris’s Waking Up (currently on top of my list – philosophy, politics, technology, science presented with new brainy guest every week – always wise, probing and profound). Radiolab (a narrative non-fiction podcast covering some science, some journalism, some stories at the edge of life, produced with great care and gentle humour). This American Life (one of the first great podcasts hits, having been around for well over a decade, personal stories of America, themes brought to life by the lives of real people). Skeptics Guide to the Universe, The Guardian Science podcasts, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time Science Series (a pleasurable way to keep up to date with science and its impact and, more pointedly, pseudo-science and its damage). The Moth (personal stories of tragedy or triumph or slipping on banana peels, told by amateurs without notes on a stage in front of an audience). 

Oh, and Invisibilia (psychology) and Note to Self (mainly technology) and a17z (technology) and The New York Times Book Review, and the New Yorker Fiction podcast and Selected Shorts (fiction) and the Foreign Policy Magazine podcast and Reveal (investigative journalism) and TED.

You get the picture. One can wallow in this stuff endlessly and never get bored. I said to my wife recently – here is my living will: no resuscitative medicines or hospitals. Just plug some earphones into my ears and line up an endless stream of great podcasts and I will happily slip away.

I suspect I may be more obsessed with podcasts than most (although I have an artist friend listens all day while he draws. Really. All day). I have tried to analyse why they have become so central in my life. Here is my best explanation. At least for me, as I get older, almost everything I do is directed towards trying to fend off bewilderment, to extract context from confusion, to find out the reason. Why? Why do politicians lie? Why is the universe on its way to a cold and lonely and endless grave? Why are sneakers so expensive? Do I know what I don’t know? Why is the world the way it is? Who am I in it?

Podcasts. The answers  are all in there, somewhere – accessible, fun and free.   

Oh, and did you know that lemmings do not follow each other to mass suicide when the population rises, as was shown in a famous documentary. It was all a cinematic hoax.

I heard it on a podcast.

Book Review – Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

Book Review – Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

It is the onslaught of the literary festival season here, and as a result, I have a unusually large pile of books to read, some for professional reasons, some for pleasure, and when the stars align, both. Among this pile was snuggled a book called Midwinter, by Fiona Melrose.

I ashamedly admit to have known little about the author, or her book. I just opened it up as the next in the pile and started reading – a courtesy for an upcoming event on which we would share a stage.

After a few short chapters I assumed that Fiona was an English author, with six generations of deep and muddy roots in Suffolk, where much of the action takes place. I was astonished (after a quick Google) to find out that Ms Melrose is SA-born and bred and currently resident and had only spent a few years in that windswept rural corner of England.

This book, to put it mildly, is a marvel. At its root are two tragedies that shape and warp the two protagonists – an ageing father and barely adult son, Landyn and Vale, struggling to make ends meet in an unforgiving and cold corner of England. The book opens with the first incident, a drunken boat accident on stormy night off the Suffolk coast. The second, an incident of violence in Zambia decades prior, robbing the father of his wife and the son of his mother. Growing painfully and raggedly from these two incidents is the story of these two broken men slamming blinded and bruisingly into each other, their rage, their grief, their hopelessness, their humanity and their eventual redemption in each other’s pain.

The book draws its fuel from deeply empathetic drawings of Landyn and Vale – one old and sad and mostly gentle, the other young and bewildered and undone by loss. The father’s inarticulate love for his motherless son, the son’s wrath and resentment at a failed father who he blames for his mother’s death act as the harsh backdrop for the story. Beautifully written and is underpinned by dialogue so authentic that I could hear the bray and lilt of thick country accents as their restrained few words to each other fail to disguise unexpressed emotions and unspoken truths.

The story of that terrible night in Zambia unfolds slowly over the course of this short novel as it wraps around the story of this diminished family battling to cope with themselves and their hardscrabble lives on their failing family farm in England. The chapters are alternately narrated by Landyn and Vale, giving the reader a clear and nuanced view of two sides of their same shattered worlds.

My description of the novel may seem bleak, but the beauty of the language and dialogue lifts it out of the blackness of their character’s lives (as do some of the marvellous secondary characters who make their contributions along the way). But I loved these two damaged men by the end of the book. I found hope in their fumbling and angry love for each other. The best of fiction both moves and transforms the reader – Midwinter was wildly successful on both counts.

Watch this author. She is still relatively young, and there are few debuts that I have read as satisfying and accomplished as this.