A.L. Kennedy the Stand-Up Novelist

A.L. Kennedy is a fearless and penetrating writer who also performs stand-up of the squirmy-but-made-ya-laugh variety. In her self-deprecating routines she uses odd voices and lashings of profanity to riff on loneliness, effrontery, abasement, and sex, among other miseries.  The blend of bleakness, intelligence, and humor she delivers onstage is not unlike her prize-winning fiction.

"Little Gorgeous People"
Here's a wonderful (and rude) 3-minute snippet from Kennedy's act at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, available for listening on The Guardian's site (not on iTunes, as far as I can tell). Definitely NSFW or for young ears, it will instruct you unforgettably on what not to say to the next novelist you meet.

Tail-Gunners and Literary Risk-Takers
Day, Kennedy's most recent performance in print (US paperback out in March 2009), won a ton of kudos. It unravels and reknits inside the head of a Staffordshire tail-gunner who survived WWII and ends up playing an extra in a 1949 movie about the war.  Day's narrative fluidity is challenging, so if you're new to Kennedy, you might want to start with the somewhat more straightforward Everything You Need (US: 2001), a dark and compelling novel set in an extreme writing colony off the coast of Wales, with side trips to lit-luvvy London.

"Writers at Warwick" Podcast
To hear Kennedy's whole stand-up act live, you'd have to fly to the UK. Wherever you are, you can listen to a vintage (1 hour+) "Writers at Warwick" interview from 2002, recorded at Warwick University, where Kennedy studied drama as an undergrad and where she now teaches writing.  The episode, too eclectic to summarize, includes readings (explicit/highbrow indigo) from her short story collection Indelible Acts (US: 2003).

Although it's an interview, there's plenty of humor.  Kennedy footnotes her cheese queue story excerpt by saying, "Primarily because as they're in a story that I've written, it all goes horribly wrong, almost immediately...because I come from a Calvinist country, and you're not allowed to have fun, especially involving dairy produce--it's wicked and evil.  [beat]  I also have this rule: that nobody has more fun in my stories than I do in my life." (Minute 23).

You can also read recent Kennedy's observations on writing at her Guardian blog, and enjoy her free-ranging thoughts on the "Obsessive Compulsive" New Statesman blog.

(unKennedy) Warwick Craft Bonus
For writers seeking prompts and craft advice, Warwick's Professor David Morley also podcasts "Writing Challenges" on iTunes.


Annie Proulx Al Fresco with the BBC

In September 2008 Annie Proulx and her local songbirds granted an outdoor interview to the BBC's World Book Club. The BBC sent their crew all the way to Laramie, Wyoming to produce a 27-minute discussion of Proulx's best-known works: the short story "Brokeback Mountain," and the Newfoundland-based novel, The Shipping News. (Evidently the WBC does not choose novels based on novelty, going instead for an author's "best-known" works--in February 2009 they podcasted discussions with Toni Morrison on Beloved (1987) and David Guterson on Snow Falling on Cedars (1995), both recorded in London.)

Raptors in the Cliff
World Book Club host Harriett Gilbert sounds thrilled to be in the "wide open" Wyoming landscape, and Proulx sounds genial, hospitable, and relaxed. It's all quite lovely and striking, even to the ears. At Gilbert's prompting, Proulx describes the cottonwood trees by the river, and the pretty colors of the 400-foot limestone cliff on the far side.  Then the author mentions, in the same cheerful knowing voice, that the cliff is "the home for many, many raptors," and we know we're unsafely in Proulx Territory.

Stories that "Fall Out of the Landscape"
Proulx reads from both The Shipping News and "Brokeback Mountain," but the delights of the interview reside in the portrait we get of Annie Proulx, the writer and the lover of privacy. Gilbert reads questions from BBC World Service listeners which lead Proulx to discuss her predeterminate plotting (oh, dear, that means all those grisly tragedies are planned), the cooperativeness of Newfoundlanders, and the forces that led her to sell her house in Gunner's Cove: the strain of traveling 4,000 miles from Wyoming to Newfoundland, the intrusion of tourists arriving in boats at the end of her dock. Proulx is happy to acknowledge the power of weather and geography in her writing, dubbing herself a "geographical determinist" (Minutes 7-8).

Uninvited Flying Book Clubbers
At about Minute 13 Gilbert remarks that the ranch is so far from anywhere as to be safe from tourists, and then there's a buzzing noise on the soundtrack (the cue seems a little too perfect--perhaps the segue was manufactured in the editing room?). Either way, the uninvited aerial book clubber sends Proulx into a flight of retribution fantasy, and she projects a scenario in which the "nosey" pilot gets too close to the beautiful cliff and goes "crash!", chuckling when Gilbert says such an event would make her sorry...well, maybe a little bit sorry.

Maddening Notoriety
In the "Brokeback Mountain" segment Proulx inveighs against the sloppiness of calling the ranch hands "cowboys." She talks about how the movie's popularity both disrupted her life and distorted the story's importance in the collection "Close Range: Wyoming Stories." She rues the necessity of a legal response to keep enthusiasts from adding wishful additions and revisions to her text (shades of J.K. Rowling and her squashing of Harry Potter ancillaries).

Join Future World Book Clubs
You, too, can participate in future WBC broadcasts (no BBC subscription required). Go to this page to learn of future books. You can also send a typed question for the author, or record one on the listed WBC phone number (toll call). The next author in the queue to be interviewed by Gilbert and listeners is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on the subject of her bestseller Half A Yellow Sun. (Episode will be podcasted April 7, 2009.)

Audio Links:
Downloadable and portable: iTunes WBC link to current episodes and iTunes WBC Annie Proulx Episode link
BBC World Book Club podcast subscription page, with downloading tools
World Book Club Archive (for listening online, but plenty of goodies worth the inconvenience)


How to Find Free Podcasts on iTunes

Podcasts in the Mist 
The first rule of searching within iTunes for free podcast episodes, literary or non, is to forget every Google skill you know. Do not use quotes and end-quotes in the initial iTunes search oval. Do not toss in the arcane word you know exists in the episode description. Do not type in a date, or the name of the author whose interview or story or poem you desire. To find podcast episodes within iTunes you must proceed in a macro-to-micro syllogism, starting by selecting the podcast sector of iTunes, then searching for a specific podcast directory, and then by using your own eyeballs to find the episode title.

A Podcast is Actually a List of Episodes
If you type in the micro episode details at the start, you will find nada, or a similarly-named music track, because the iTunes search engine can't "see" into the "boxes" that organize the podcast episodes into clickable lists (the actual audio files are hosted elsewhere--iTunes just connects you to them). Think of the box as the podcast container. iTunes' search can only read the labels pasted on the outside of the box. These labels are limited to: the overall podcast title (i.e. "New Yorker: Fiction"), the name of the podcast "Artist," and a global description plus keywords (12 max) that the podcaster supplied when they set up the feed. The specific episode data is hidden from the iTunes search function.

So how do you find a great podcasted interview or free short story or poetry recording if you don't know the name of the podcast publisher? You go back to your internet browser and start with the Big G...

Google Avant La Lettre
To navigate iTunes' top-down search structure you need to equip yourself with the name of the podcast as well as the episode title, and for that your best tool is Google. (I also try to provide this data, or direct links, in my Litagogo.com reviews.) Most podcasters have a web page that will give you either direct links to episodes in iTunes (hurrah!) or enough data to enable you perform your three-step iTunes capture on your own. Go to google.com, and type "author name" and podcast into the search space. Knock yourself out with particulars--book titles, publishing house, pet names, rivals, etc. Popular authors will have many podcasts, so browse around your results. Often you can click and listen right on the page, saving you the trouble of loading the podcast onto iTunes unless you want to keep it, or transfer it to your iPod for portable listening.

To Get or Not to Get
If you're in any doubt about whether you want to have the episode available indefinitely, go ahead and download or "Get" it using iTunes, because some podcasts make their episodes available for a limited period of time--about 4-5 weeks from the original podcast date. Online"archive" listening from the podcaster's web page is often, but not always, available for longer periods of time.

Now You're Loaded for iTunes
1) From within the "iTunes Store" (little green shopping bag icon) click on "Podcasts," which is five items below "Music" as of this posting. Feel free to look around--podcasts are free!

2) Type the name of the Podcast Publisher that you found on Google into the search space and hit return.

3) Click on the arrow that comes right after the Podcast Publisher's name. You should advance to a podcast home page with a list of episodes available from that podcaster.  Scan for your episode (it would be nice to have a control-F function to search the list, but my version of iTunes doesn't have it). You can listen from here.  If you want to keep it for a while, or load it onto your iPod, click the "Get Episode" button. The episode will be stored on your Library (moving it to your iPod requires an extra step, or a global Sync).

Should You Subscribe?
If you see a lot of episodes on a podcast that tempt you, you can click on the "Subscribe" button higher up on the podcast home page. It's not as big a commitment as it seems: only the most recently published episode will be stored in your Library, and only this once, and you can manually delete it. To see all currently available episodes, click on the little triangle before the podcast title to drop down a list. The previous episodes will be listed in fainter gray letters for your approval. You can "Get All," or select them one by one (click on the "i" button for more info if you're not sure). If the faint listings are a distraction, you can delete them. You will be offered new episodes in faint gray whenever you open iTunes.

My favorite podcast subscriptions are:


Spurned Lover Poem: "They Flee From Me" by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Valentine's Day a disappointment? Here's a poem to assuage those lover's blues (scroll down for poem). Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), Renaissance courtier and poet, lived a truncated but exciting 39 years. He was in and out of favor with Henry VIII, traveled abroad as a diplomat, imported Petrarch's sonnets to England in his dossier, survived two sojourns in the Tower, and witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn (a rumored lover of Wyatt's) from his cell window. "They Flee From Me" is the kvetch of a spurned swain, yet Wyatt also seems to boast of his bedchamber skills (women ate out of his hand) and past rakishness, and in the second stanza he paints a pretty vignette of a "special" lover's efforts to seduce him, quoting her timelessly sexy line: "Dear heart, how like you this?"

To modern ears, the poet's arch lyricism can seem Humbert-Humbertian, but if "They Flee From Me" was in fact inspired by Boleyn's choosing the newfangled king over the poet-courtier's gentleness, she was no more than four years younger than Wyatt, and might have been older (her birthdate is estimated in the range of 1499-1507).

The poem's bitter conclusion projects a triumphant "you'll get yours" sentiment. Just the antidote one needs if the night of hearts and flowers didn't bring the right pair of naked feet stalking into your chamber.

They Flee From Me
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be to fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream; I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Listen to this poem


Valentine Poems: How to Email or Print

UPDATE: Nice collection of love poems selected by authors at the Guardian Books page (no audio, though).

Litagogo's Valentine Poem Selection
You can email any of these copyright-free poems ("The Sun Rising," "One Day I Wrote Her Name," "In a Gondola," A Birthday," "Sonnets are Full of Love" {for Mom},"Wild Nights," "A Red, Red Rose," "Venus Transiens," or, if lunar bodies have ceased aligning, "They Flee From Me" ) to your beloved by clicking on the small envelope symbol (looks like an "M") at the end of each poem post. Blogger will pop up an email form. Enter your name and the email address. In the Message box, type something like: "Dear Crumpet, Please copy and paste the link below to see the words that made me think of you. xoxoxo Sweetums." If your recipient is not web-savvy, you can explain that they copy (control+c) the string starting with "http" and paste (control+v) it in the address strip at the top of their browser and give Return a love-tap.

If you're going to be in the physical presence of your inamorata/inamorato today, you can copy the poem text, paste it into a Word doc, print it, and fashion it into a homemade Valentine. If you print out the first page of this post, you can cut out the picture of Prince Frog-Rose above and make a small card.


Valentine Poem: "One Day I Wrote Her Name" by Edmund Spenser

While working in Ireland and courting his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle, English poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) wrote a series of love sonnets called Amoretti.  The sonnets were apparently successful: the couple married in 1594 and the poems were published a year later. "One Day I Wrote Her Name" is #75 out of 97 or so.  It's a contemplation of love and mortality. Spenser's promise to immortalize his beloved through verse has also succeeded--400 years on we're still reading his lines about her, though her name is not mentioned in this particular sonnet.  The poem is remarkable for the power of its simplicity and the ease with which it fulfills the sonnet form.

Amoretti: Sonnet LXXV
by Edmund Spenser

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
but came the waves and washed it away:
again I wrote it with a second hand,
but came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that dost in vain assay,
a mortal thing so to immortalize;
for I my self shall like to this decay,
and eke my name to be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quod I) let baser things devise
to die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
my verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
and in the heavens write your glorious  name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
our love shall live, and later life renew.


Valentine Poem: "The Sun Rising" by John Donne

Aubade is a fancy French word for poems about lovers driven apart by the dawn. Just in case you might not get it, John Donne (1572-1631) titles his exemplar "The Sun Rising."  And boy, does it rouse.  He rebukes the heck out of the big star, calling it old and foolish and commanding it elsewhere. Using the sun as his foil, Donne exalts love and the lover in his bed above everything else: nature, time, power, and riches. The poem's a wonderful celebration of bliss in sheets, when "Nothing else is."

The Sun Rising
by John Donne

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
  Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
  Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them in a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eye hath no blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
   Whether both th'Indias of spice and mine
   Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She's all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus.
  Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
  To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou are everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.


Valentine Poem: "A Birthday" by Christina Georgina Rossetti

A precocious poet and devout Anglican, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) refused two suitors, apparently for their lack of religious compatibility. She composed "A Birthday" in 1857 and published it in 1861; no record exists to say if the inspiration was ethereal or mammal.  Interpret it as you like. Rossetti's brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group which promoted poetry and painting, and which included one of Rossetti's ultimately unsuccessful suitors, James Collins.  Dante illustrated Christina's first poetry publication, Goblin Market, a tale for children ripe with adult interpretations.  Rossetti was the model for her brother's inaugual Pre-Raphaelite painting of "The Girlhood of Mary Virgin." She was also painted by Collins during their temporary engagement.  As her health declined, she settled down to a quieter life with her mother. (Some 21st-century poems for mom available here.)

(Archaic vocab: "vair" is a variegated type of squirrel fur, popular as a trim for heraldic robes in the Middle Ages.)

A Birthday
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hand it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.


Valentine Poem: "A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns

An immortal rose-and-love poem by the great Scottish bard, Robert Burns (1759-1796) whose 250th birthday inspired a riot of online celebration in his native land. Burns coined some acute expressions in his poems ("best-laid plans of mice and men," "man's inhumanity to man"), but this poem, written in 1794, endures not for its philosophy, but for its wave-crashing rhythm and brash declarations of love. It's over the top, but you feel that the poet meant it when he wrote it.  The images are cadged from a far less transporting traditional folk song, but as with "Auld Lang Syne," Burns' talent made doggerel delectable.  His robust stanzas shape the elements into lyrical avowals of passion. Seas going dry, rocks melting with the sun--who wouldn't want to be loved like that?  No wonder so many bonie lasses fell for him.

Surprising-yet-not-surprising cross-century conjunctions:  in 2003 Bob Dylan cited "A Red, Red Rose" when asked which lyric or verse had the greatest influence on his life.  Sometime in the 1820s Abraham Lincoln became a life-long fan.

Because I craved a Scottish accent for the audio version of the poem (see player below), I had to record off the telephone, so you'll have to imagine that the winds of the highlands are blowing behind Burns' bonie words of luve.

A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns

O my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like a melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.--

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.--

Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.--

And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Listen (click green arrow on link below):

Valentine Poem For Mom: "Sonnets Are Full of Love" by Christina Georgina Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote this sonnet to dedicate her fourth volume of poems to her mother, with whom she lived until her mother died in 1886.  When A Pageant and Other Poems was published in 1881, the poet was 51 and the poet's mom was 80 ("fourscore years").  It's especially touching that 51 years of cohabitation did not erode Rossetti's daughterly devotion.

Sonnets Are Full of Love
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart's quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.


Valentine Poem: "Wild nights!--wild nights!" by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) led the life of a shut-in and wrote the life of a passionate sylph. Her poems are assertive and expansive, attuned to nature and ecstasy and death.  She first composed "Wild nights!--wild nights!" in Amherst, Mass. in 1861, shortly after a possible crush moved to the far coast.  Although Dickinson enclosed poems in her letters and handmade her own chapbooks, her poetry was not published until after her death.  This version of the poem is reprinted with the permission of the online text copyright owner, Ian Lancashire of the University of Toronto and General Editor of Representative Poetry Online.

Wild nights!--wild nights!
by Emily Dickinson

Wild nights!--wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port--
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden--
Ah, the sea!
Might I moor, tonight
In thee!

Online text copyright c. 2009, Ian Lancashire (the Department of English) and the University of Toronto.



Valentine Poem Fragment: "In a Gondola" by Robert Browning

This is a fragment of a long "he said/she said" poem titled "In A Gondola," written by Robert Browning (1812-1889).  It's not an exalted love poem, but rather a role-playing dalliance enacted on Venice's night canals by a woman (possibly married) and her lover.  Browning forever established his lover-man credentials in 1846 by eloping to Italy with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and by inspiring her to write "Sonnets From the Portuguese" ("How do I love thee?" etc.).  There's a hilarious "Cambridge Footlights" courtship sketch with Emma Thompson as Elizabeth and Stephen Fry as Robert--set in London when Elizabeth was a prisoner of ill health and paternal cloistering (at Minute 2 "diddy"=daddy).

"In a Gondola" was sparked when an intermediary for painter Daniel Maclise asked Browning to write a few lines on an oil-painting titled "The Serenade" (now in Baylor's Armstrong Browning Library; scroll to bottom of linked page for small image).  Browning wrote the few lines, and then added over 200 more. These excerpted stanzas are intended to be "sung" by the woman, but for the podcast I asked a man to speak them (audio link below), just for fun.

(More fun with nature: the "bee" on the delphinium flower above is actually an illusion created by tiny fuzzy petals.)  

In A Gondola (excerpt)
by Robert Browning

The moth's kiss, first!
Kiss me as if you made me believe
You were not sure, this eve,
How my face, your flower, had pursed
Its petals up; so, here and there
You brush it, till I grow aware
Who wants me, and wide ope I burst.

The bee's kiss, now!
Kiss me as if you entered gay
My heart at some noonday,
A bud that dares not disallow
The claim, so all is rendered up,
And passively its shattered cup
Over your head to sleep I bow.


Valentine Poem: "Venus Transiens" by Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was born into a prominent New England Family.  In addition to poetry, she wrote criticism and a biography of John Keats.  Lowell was a generous and vivid person who supported other artists, launched the Imagist movement in America, and got into spats with Ezra Pound.  "Venus Transiens," written in 1915, was probably inspired by her muse, the actress Ada Dwyer Russell.

Venus Transiens
by Amy Lowell 

Tell me,
Was Venus more beautiful
Than you are,
When she topped 
The crinkled waves,
Drifting shoreward
On her plaited shell?
Was Botticelli's vision
Fairer than mine;
And were the painted rosebuds
He tossed his lady
Of better worth
Than the words I blow about you
To cover your too great loveliness
As with a gauze
Of misted silver?

For me,
You stand poised
In the blue and bouyant air,
Cinctured by bright winds,
Treading the sunlight.
And the waves which precede you
Ripple and stir
The sands at my feet.


Valentine Poems in the Podcast Pipeline

The greenhouse-gassing holiday known as Valentine's Day is almost upon us. Semi-green and public-domain podcasted love poems coming soon, for carbon-lite emailing. (Now available: full list of Litagogo's selection of Valentine Poems.)

Maeve Binchy's Sly Structure

Maeve Binchy crafts stories the old-school way:  with foreshadowing, significant objects, narrative worldliness, and snap-shut structure. In the case of "The Wrong Suitcase," she caps all these satisfying elements with a mutual dénouement that emits just enough acridity to save the somewhat musty premise of the story from spongey resolution.  It's a nice combo of savory and sweet, like Earl Grey and scones.

On the PRI: Selected Shorts podcast, Cynthia Nixon makes parallel petulance funny by keeping the dual-narrator switchbacks brisk.  She uses a subtle voice-register shift to signal POV transitions, and she inhabits both characters with verve.  Alan, the male narrator, is entertainingly harrumphy, and thinks things like: "the machinery of the morrow," and "a flashy-looking sponge bag with some goo from the chemist in it." Annie, the female narrator, is preoccupied with toiletries, and might have come across as a wan version of Edna O'Brien's Country Girls, but Nixon makes her spunky enough.

The story lasts about 20 minutes on a podcast--long enough to unpack that case from two weekends ago.  It's the second story on the 2/9/2009 PRI: Selected Shorts episode titled "Unexpected Developments." (Fast-forward to minute 38.) The first story is "Summer People," by Shirley Jackson, a story which despises its main character too much, and whose foreshadowing wears anvil-shanked boots, which is a shame, because I thought Rene Auberjonois did a good job with the down-Maine accents.

"Unexpected Developments," a PRI: Selected Shorts Podcast, is available on iTunes and also the NPR podcast website (this show updates Mondays at 9 p.m.).  For copyright reasons the episodes are only available for free downloading for approximately one month, after which time they can be purchased on compilation CDs.


David Foster Wallace and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum in the Bookworm Cocoon

Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW's Bookworm radio program and podcast (recent episodes available on iTunes), wraps his interview subjects in silky skeins of flattery and analysis.  Inside Bookworm's audio cocoon the atmosphere is unrushed and contemplative.  Dead air is allowed to breathe, as we listen to Silverblatt thinking in the middle of asking, and to authors thinking before answering.  Issues of language, identity, and culture are spun from text into speech, some of it slippery.

Occasionally Silverblatt's interpretations are so psychologically ecstatic that I lose my sense of what's written and what's inferred, and I have to ratchet the tracking diamond on my iPod backward for a second listen.  Sometimes the tenderness is too much and the cocoon seems a fantasy--it's hard to believe that there is someone out there lavishing such microscopic attention on approximately 50 writers a year (Silverblatt preps for each interview by reading the author's oeuvre).  But usually I can't resist Bookworm's devotion and intimacy, especially if the subject is a writer I like.

What's remarkable is that Silverblatt's spinneret generates filaments capable of capturing both big concept writers (David Foster Wallace) and subtle-moments-of-change writers (Sarah Shun-lien Bynum) in their own contexts.  What makes the cocoon so cozy, I suspect, is that Silverblatt's ability to discern authorial intent sometimes surpasses the author's.

Fractals in Foster Wallace
Silverblatt opens his interviews with a highly specific and unusual appreciation of the work, a softening-up that often generates moments of mutual human giddiness before the half-hour is up.  Early in his 4/11/1996 interview with David Foster Wallace (repodcasted in memorium on 11/26/08, and available on the Bookworm archive), Silverblatt posits that Infinite Jest seemed to be written in fractals (!).  This really gets DFW's attention, who responds by riffing on the Sierpinski Gasket, which he describes as a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal that looks like "a pyramid on acid. " (How miserable that we are now deprived of this mind, with its talent for clarifying the esoteric via the vernacular).  Minutes later, Silverblatt thrills over how great Infinite Jest gets around 200 pages in, and says, "It didn't seem like difficulty for difficulty's sake; it seemed like immense difficulty being expended because something important about how difficult it has become to be human needed to be said." (Minute 8)  DFW's wonderfully po-voiced response: "I feel like I want to ask you to adopt me."

The many pleasures in this recording are made more poignant by the knowledge that Foster Wallace cannot be interviewed again.  He lets Silverblatt lead the discussion, and permits some Bookwormian elevation of theme, but he also stands fast by his authorial humility.  Their conversation covers the challenge of writing demanding fiction without being a show-off, the loneliness of art, DFW's desire to write something really sad yet also fun, and the nihilism and double-blinds of contemporary culture in the absence of organizing principles.  The podcast, like DFW's writing, contains more complexity than you can process with one listen.  I am grateful that it exists, and that Bookworm has put it back on iTunes, so I can carry it around in my pocket.  (The archive contains additional interviews with DFW, but this is the one they chose as a commemoration.)

Cherry Blossoms in Bynum
The pleasures of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles are more acrescent than fractal (thought the cover art is weirdly fractal-ish), and Silverblatt's interview flatters with vocabulary in place of geometry.  In his introduction he remarks on the biddy-ness prevalent in the teacher-novel genre (I wished he'd explored this in more depth), and notes Ms. Hempel's relative youth and mutability.  He quickly draws Bynum out on her book's theme of becoming an adult while surrounded by adolescents, and they laugh together over various teacherly foibles.  The interview gets more craft-related around the 13th minute, with a discussion of consciousness and point of view.  Silverblatt also coos over Ms. Hempel's charming vocabulary teaching-tactics, and highlights the author's cherry blossom compliment simile, solidifying a rapport that propels their conversation through an awkward question about the revelation of narrator/author ethnicity.  Prior to hearing this Bookworm interview I had dipped into the first chapter/story and thought that Ms. Hempel was too twee for me, but now that I've listened to Bynum's good-sportiness and sense of humor in the Bookworm cocoon, I've given the book another chance, and found myself won over by its exquisite detail and empathy.

How to Listen:

Live program, Thursdays 2:30-3 pm PST, KCRW 

David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest Bookworm interview recorded 4/11/1996, 28:30,  downloadable from iTunes with a repodcast date of 11/26/2009, at least for a while, then available for computer-listening on the archive, along with other DFW conversations.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Ms. Hempel Chronicles Bookworm interview 1/15/2009, 28:30, also on iTunes, and on Bookworm's archive.