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
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.
Book Review – Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin
Since I started writing novels some years ago I read non-fiction less often than I would like and far less often than I used to. But a daughter at UCT studying Astrophysics and a wifely Christmas present of this book (roundly garlanded as one of the best of 2016 by various opinion-makers) gave me license.
The subject is the 60-year story of the construction of two co-operating LIGOs in the US (I won’t bother with the expansion of the acronym, but it is an L-shaped, 4km long piece of insanely complex astrophysical equipment) and its very recent confirmation of Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves, now considered to be one of the most important experimental scientific confirmations of the last century. It is also the study behind the geniuses (and eccentrics) who envisioned and built the project.
The book doesn’t attempt more than a careful prose description of the science, so as not to fall into the trap of losing non-physicist readers along the way. Suffice it to say that billions of years ago two stars circled each other. They collapsed eventually into individual black holes and then merged. In the last 200 milliseconds of that merger, they released a massive amount of energy which warped space-time in a little ripple that travelled 1.4 billion light years to earth, which was ‘heard’ by the two LIGOs at exactly the same time on a day in September 2015. Billion of years. Billions of miles. And we design a piece of kit to hear the last 200 MILLISECONDS of the event, which proves a dazzling prediction of the theory of relativity.
If this doesn’t impress impress you about the boundless ambition of human curiosity, I am not sure what will. It has not only confirmed the theory, but opened the first truly ‘new’ field of astronomy in many decades, and will allow us to look deeper, further and more clearly into where we came from.
The science in the book is given bright colour by the descriptions of the fascinating politics of big science and the human brilliance, failings and tragedies of the many scientists who laboured on this near-impossible project. Janna Levin brings all of them to light in a way that only the best fiction tries to do. BTW – astronomer Kip Thorne (the driving force behind this for decades) also wrote the treatment for the film Interstellar.
Levin is herself a physicist and professor, but her use of language and an unusual stylistic flair can stand toe-to-toe with writers of any genre. This is a must read for anyone with who struggles, like I do, to make sense of the inscrutable world of advanced physics and cosmology and its practitioners, but who wish to get a clearly articulated glimpse of its mysteries.
You will leave this book knowing far more about the universe and the best of human ingenuity than when you started.
Book Review – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
A short while ago I posted a picture of my holiday reads, this novel among them. I got an equal number of ‘You’re going to love it’ and ‘You’re going to hate it’ from people whose opinions I respect equally. Argh. The pressure.
This is a big book. Not as in lengthy (a reasonable 389 pages), but as in bursting. It is, at its swollen heart, a great and rending love story, a story of marriage (messy, betrayed, boundless) and the potholed roads on which it travels – romantic, erotic, tragic, infuriating and lingering. Its plot as uneven as life, its cast as unpredictable and flawed and and unreasoned as, well, people are.
There is a large cast of characters, but really only two – the husband Lotto and his wife Mathilde.. Lotto has grown from a oversized, acne scarred and unhappy teenager (deposited by a controlling mother into a bullying prep school) into a tall, strong, beautiful Adonis – loved, talented and graced with charm, kindness and unfillable yearning for adulation. Young and at college he meets Mathilde, a 6 foot slip of unusual beauty, abandoned and insecure. And they fall instantly in love, moving to New York, he to seek success in theatre and she to seek herself. Their unruly ambitions and love for each other crest and crash against each other repeatedly, leaving the reader bruised and exhausted. And we follow them at uncomfortably and piercingly close quarters for many decades, their unspoken secrets and pasts slowly but determinedly creeping up on them like malevolent shadows.
The book is divided into two sections – their first 25 years (‘Fates’) and thereafter (‘Furies’) separated by a life-changing event which I won’t spoil. The first section is mainly Lotto’s perspective, his belated sterling career as playwright, his vaulting ambition, his endless love and lust for Mathilde. The second half, mainly Mathilde’s perspective, is her titanic battle between vengeance and kindness, careening dizzily between time frames as her best and worst selves wrestle for the next 40 or so years.
Groff’s writing is startling – a mere few words can leave the reader gasping. Her facility with phrase sentence, scene and the complexity of human emotion is like none I have ever read before (this is my first Groff). She is also intimidatingly erudite (this book is not for everyone – I felt deeply peasanted by some of the literary and theatrical references – Greek mythology anyone?). It also occasionally employs devices – first acts of disguised autobiograhical plays written by Lotto, play synopses masquerading as motive, even one section where the actual novel narrative is in its entirety embedded in the first act of a play. Normally this would annoy me, but there is something so unique in the way that this book is played out that makes it feels natural, necessary, wildly expository.
Oh, and the sex. Deep, near pornographic descriptions of their lovemaking. Usually I cringe, but in the hands of Groff, I became (how shall I say this?), um, titillated.
I really loved this book. I weep for Lott and Mathilde, their story tears at me still. I think Lauren Groff is a genius, likely beyond my reckoning. I will read everything she writes from now on. Highly recommended.
Book Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan
After panting and wheezing my way though a couple of doorstop books (not all of which did their weight justice), I was relieved recently to have been confronted with the dainty new 199-page novel from Ian McEwen, Nutshell. McEwen is one of those people, like Woody Allen or Philip Roth or Martin Scorcese, where a a new offering simply requires a mandatory pilgrimage, even if there are certain to be disappointments along the way. Saturday, Atonement and Amsterdam had engraved McEwan’s name on my must-always-read list, and its economy was an added attraction.
This book’s premise is an audacious conceit. The narrator is the main protagonist’s unborn boy-child, nestled snugly in her womb, where he is witness to murder-most-foul. I say this with intent because the foetus hilariously narrates in faux-Shakespearean English (the book is set in our current time), full of poetry, soaring soliloquy and flowery flights of imagination and introspection. This is a high-wire act, and when it became clear who was narrating (within minutes of starting the book), I got a little anxious – this is just silly, I thought – it cannot sustain. A foetus (even if one were to grant literary license), has never seen the world. How can it possibly be our ubiquitous narrator?
Ah, but McEwen is a master of device (his most recent, Sweet Tooth, reveals the entire story to have been a brilliant deceit in the final pages). In Nutshell he smartly fashions the mechanisms of this unborn baby’s knowledge – he has heard his mother in conversation, he has heard podcasts late into the night as his mother struggles with insomnia, he has heard the muffled TV, the radio. He knows a great deal, our foetus, without ever having to have opened his eyes.
And then there is the plot. An old-fashioned English murder nefariously planned by the mother and her lover, directed at our baby’s father – a cuckolded, impecunious and unheralded publisher of poetry, now separated and forced out of the house that he owns (and which his would be killers want). Our little womb-bound hero knows of the murder plans, what can he do? He loves his mother and his father – what is to become of his life of the murder plans succeed? What if she is caught? His, um, erudite babylike musings on these matters make up much of the clever and lightly comedic backdrop of the novel. There are plot holes galore, the murder and its undoing is reasonably predictable, but it is all bundled together in a literary and good-natured package and serves more to advertise McEwan’s mastery of language, dialogue and quintessential British comedic understatement than it does to advance the crime genre in which it unfolds.
There are some truly funny scenes – our tiny hero’s periodic disgust as his mother’s oafish and oversexed lover takes her from behind, squashing his little head with his thrusting penis. Our unborn child’s unashamed and very modern admission of his drinking problem, a result of his mother’s excessive fondness for fine wines. His terror of ending up as an foster baby in a 13th story walk-up.
This is undoubtedly the first (perhaps) and last time we will have a foetus as a novel’s narrator. In less experienced hands this could been a terrible mess. But this novelist knows his way around storytelling (20 books, excluding librettos and oratorios and screenplays). And perhaps he dashed this off in the metaphorical equivalent of an afternoon, but it was worth the quick pilgrimage this author’s work demands.
Book Review – The Safest Place You Know by Mark Winkler
This is an astonishing South African novel.
Some time ago I reviewed Winkler’s Wasted, which was a disturbing pleasure to read. The first thing that jumps out on reading this (his third) novel is how different it is – in tone, structure, language, dialogue, characters, narrative. Wasted was urban and bristling. This is something else altogether. Authors dream of this sort of diversity and dexterity – it is a rare gift. It is as though Winkler has seemingly accessed an entirely new writer out of the same space in his head and heart. That is the first astonishment.
The second is the writing. From word to sentence to paragraph to chapter the language soars, sometimes so beautifully as to reach for poetry. Descriptions of simple things – raindrops or dust or a tree or a gesture is wrought from original and exotic material – I often found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs after simply gasping at the language the first time around. There is a danger in this of course, because those chapters (and there were a few) that do not reach the same level of excellence become starkly bland. But I quibble, because the whole far exceeds its parts.
The action unfolds in the early 1980s. Two separate lives, irrevocably damaged by cruel and abusive fathers, are thrown into a strange and poignant embrace on a wine estate near Paarl. The first is a 17 year Afrikaans boy, Hennie, fleeing an act of violence on his family farm, now in the final death throws neglect and drought. The second is a 30-something lawyer, Andy, the estranged heiress to a wine estate, irrevocably damaged and alcohol-enslaved, now returned to the estate on the untimely death of her hated father. The damage wrought by their respective fathers and the subsequent corrosive secrets carried by their children sit a the heart of this story, which unfolds as they both try to communicate, try to comfort each other, try to comfort themselves and try to find a way to leave the past behind. If I can misquote Philip Larkin – they really fuck you up, your fathers. Winkler looks long and deep into those wounds.
The cast is rounded out by the counterpoint of two other key characters. One is the estate domestic helper, Johanna, a white woman deposited reluctantly (and finally with great loyalty) into the coloured community by an act of apartheid madness, and the other a small child of unknown provenance, Charlotte, who arrives mysteriously on the estate, bringing with her a chimeric and other-worldly healing for all. For me this was the only off-key note in the book (I have difficulty with the introduction of magical realism into a beautifully rendered story of tragedy and redemption, but perhaps I quibble again). I will say no more about the plot, it unfolds and refolds with great sensitivity and care, and the character’s voices echo loud after the final page.
I am told there was a reviewer who compared Winkler favourably to JM Coetzee. Perhaps (I am poorly-read in the Coetzee department), but I would simply say that The Safest Place You Know has elevated Winkler into a cadre of uncommon talent, I would take a soft bet that he ends up being one of the great writers coming out of SA in the early part of this century
Book Review – Wasted by Mark Winkler
In keeping with my policy of not reviewing books written by friends (which I violated in the case of Bloomlak’s Continental Shift), let me declare that I have never actually met Mark Winkler, but our paths have crossed occasionally on Facebook. I figure that there is distance enough to write this without bias.
A while ago I reviewed We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves and was faced with the problem of how to review it without giving away the incident on page 77, which was so off-the-charts that the reader had to utterly re-evaluate the characters, the plot, the narrative, everything.
So it is with Wasted. Something happens on page 62 that is similarly shocking, leaving me to have to dance around it as I write this. So excuse the pussy-footing, I don’t want to spoil.
This is a startlingly original book, and a first person voice of long-lingering and searingly poignant originality (I will think about the protagonist, Nathan, for a long time). The first section of the book introduces us to this amusing, eccentric oddball, who lives alone, sleeps with the lights on, has no friends, labours competently in a junior sales position in an ad agency and has a near permanent erection which is relieved often, by hand or happenstance.
His interactions with people are sparse, taciturn, self-deprecating and somewhat bewildered. His internal world broils with sharp and unique commentary and slightly bent self-reflection and off-kilter brain banter. He is, in short, the sort of character to whom the reader is quickly drawn, in a maternal sort of way. We want him to succeed. We want him to make friends, find love. He is kind. He is lost. He visits an older woman friend sick with cancer often, and with unconditional affection. Yes, he is pretty weird, but he is the sort of guy that I have known and am often drawn to – depth masquerading as oddity. There are the smallest hints of what is to come, but I was never fully aware until later, when it happened.
And then page 62. OMG. I sat up in bed when I hit this page and yelped. Nathan does something. And the book becomes something else – a funny and sad and profound investigation into dark matters from which most of us are happily hidden. I can’t say more. I will ruin it.
The writing is sparse and economic and evocative and acute. The secondary characters, are well-salted and mullti-coloured, and at least one of them (a doomed and insightful murderer named Naicker) is clearly the author’s mouthpiece for the great matters of life and death, a technique to which I am always drawn (I am as interested in the authors’ opinions as I am in characters’ opinions).
Winkler is a local author, but the book is not in any sense ‘South African’ other than in its locale (Cape Town) and he stays mercifully away from tropes of race and history and politics that bedevil many other SA novels. This book is not plot driven – there is one, of course, but it plays second fiddle the far more interesting troubled mind and shattered history and truncated future of Nathan Lucius, as complex and tragic a character as I have read in a long time.
Reading Winkler was an uncommon and unexpected pleasure – this book is very different from other literary fare and its brevity belies its depth. Take a deep breath and go on this morally chaotic journey into dark places with Lucius – you won’t forget him soon.