Podcasts for Wrapping

The holiday season Guardian Short Stories podcast is back, just in time for all you last-minute wrappers! Also great for long walks away from the yulemosh.

Jingle Bell and Ho Ho Ho Free
Some people like to wrap to Christmas music, but I prefer to squish and tape my corners to short story podcasts, which I listen to on headphones to filter out all the paper carnage. Last year the Guardian Books site podcasted an excellent 12-day series of favorite short stories read by contemporary authors (read the Litagogo overview here, and my review of the excellent reading of Angela Carter's "The Kitchen Child" by Helen Simpson here). The format is roughly similar to The New Yorker: Fiction podcast (a Litagogo fave) in that the reading is followed by a discussion, in this case with Lisa Allardice, the editor of the Guardian's Saturday Review section. The main difference between the Guardian and The New Yorker podcasts is an absence of set-up--the Guardian readers plunge into the stories without preamble or explanation. Also, The New Yorker spreads their story readings across a year, podcasting one per month, whereas the Guardian podcasts one story every day for 12 consecutive days. (Hmmm, The 12 Podcasts of... Never mind.)

Starting at Z
gift books zadie smith
The Gift of Books
As readers of this blog and my reviews will already know, I'm a big fan of Zadie Smith (go read Smith's wonderful essay on joy vs. pleasure on The New York Review of Books site right now--it might slip behind a paywall!), so I'm pleased that this year's Guardian short story series starts with her. Last year the discussions afterward between Allardice and the author/readers felt a bit truncated. That seems to have improved this year, based on the satisfying discussion that follows Smith's reading of "Umberto Buti" by Guiseppe Pontiggia, a story she recently translated for McSweeney's (both story and author are new to me).

Subscribe for Keepers
I noticed that some of last year's 12 story podcasts are no longer available for downloading from the Guardian Short Stories iTunes feed. If you think you might want to have any of these recordings stored on your hard disk or iPod or iPhone, you should subscribe and download. You can always delete the ones you don't want to keep. Lucky for you, the Helen Simpson reading of Angela Carter's "The Kitchen Child" is still available to download from iTunes. Merry listening, indeed.


Kevin Powers on The Yellow Birds

"and the dust covered everything in Al Tafar, so that even the blooming hyacinth flowers became a kind of rumor."--The Yellow Birds
"and the dust covered everything in Al Tafar, so that even the blooming hyacinth flowers became a kind of rumor."--The Yellow Birds
Kevin Powers, author of a novel about young soldiers who serve in fictional "Tal Afar," Iraq, served in real-life Al Tafar, Iraq (the anagram is so close it feels like a typo) when Powers was only slightly older than 21-year-old Private John Bartle, the first-person narrator of his sinuous and stark war novel, The Yellow Birds. Powers and Bartle are both from Virginia, and although the fictional Bartle does not share the MFA in poetry that Powers earned after his military service, his soldierly descriptions of everything from hyacinths to explosions contain the rhythms and sensory details of poetry. Powers speaks directly about the similarities between himself and the narrator of The Yellow Birds in an interview with Tom Gjelton, who was standing in for Diane Rehm during her vacation from The Diane Rehm Show (iTunes link to most recent episodes) in September 2012.

The Autobiographical Itch
Whenever a novelist's background clings closely to that of his or her fist-person narrator the question of autobiography is inevitable. In my experience this fiction vs. autobiography curiosity peaks right after I finish the book, which is what happened when I finished listening to the audiobook of The Yellow Birds (my review will appear soon in Shelf Awareness--I will add a link when goes live).

Podcast Provender
I often look for a podcast to give me answers to questions I have about a book or an author's intentions, and I am often satisfied by podcasts. Writers tend to be garrulous in audio interviews, and there are plenty of good interviewers out there asking questions readers might like to ask. One of the advantages of getting your author background information from a podcast is that you get hear the bonus verbal cues--hesitations, tone shifts, silences, or lack thereof--that can help you decide for yourself if the writer is telling the truth about the fiction.

Complimentary Snoopiness
I know authors get terribly tired of this snoopiness, but the better the story, the more avid the desire to know if it's real. Readers can't help it. If it turns out that there is actually a good deal of invention and inspiration, and that the biographical details are more scenic and empathetic than true-life-replicating, that only adds to my esteem for the fiction.

Veteran Experience
If you're read or listened to the audiobook of The Yellow Birds (and I recommend that you do, if you have any curiosity at all about what modern combat and the subsequent return home is like for our soldiers), you will find this interview with Kevin Powers by Tom Gjelton on The Diane Rehm Show well worth a listen. The author reads several well-chosen excerpts aloud (though I'm still partial to Holter Graham's audiobook performance). Powers' discussion with Gjelton will inform you about how much the author created from his experience, and listener call-ins bring in more voices of non-fictional veterans who served in various conflicts. The 50-minute interview is spoiler-free, so don't be afraid to listen to it if you haven't read the book yet (though it will be more interesting if you have).

Sterling Disappointment
My only disappointment with this podcast was that Powers did not budge a millimeter on the real-life inspiration for Sergeant Sterling, to my mind the most singular, enigmatic, and charismatic character in The Yellow Birds. Sterling's hot-metal dialogue and his brutal-love leadership of his unit give The Yellow Birds a necessary intensity. When Gjelton inquires, "Was there someone like Sergeant Sterling in your own experience?"(Minute 11), Powers replies, "I mean--not directly; none of the characters correspond to people I actually knew," and veers into a discussion of mining elements of himself (cf. Flaubert: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"), the disavowal comes a little too fast and sounds a little too slick. Perhaps the soldier-poet-novelist knows when a diversionary answer is the most strategic, and in this debriefing he got away with one, or maybe he made Sterling up out of nothing but dust and shards of his own experience; either way I'm glad he exists in novelistic form.


Rod Stewart: Singer, Writer, Art Lover

Handbags and gladrags and morning sun when it's in your face, etc.

Perhaps it's spandexing the bounds of "literary" to include a review of a podcast in which Rod Stewart promotes his autobiography (entitled, deliciously, Rod:

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but I was lyrically disillusioned by "Maggie May" as a kid (I can still picture the room in my dad's Upper West Side apartment where I first heard it over the radio) and I was popmusically imprinted by Stewart's cover of Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is The Deepest" as a teenager. When I chanced across Stewart's 13-minute conversation with Kirsty Lang on the BBC's Front Row podcast  I was snookered all over again by the raspy organ and Rod's laid-back candor.

Here are a few of the choice items from the interview, but if you have time, listen to Rod tell them as only Rod can (see links below for online listening & iTunes downloading*):

1) Although his lyrics take some factual liberties, there was a real "Maggie May" and a somewhat momentous event for young Rod at a jazz festival in Beaulieu, England. [You'll notice Beaulieu is pronounced "beeuwlee" by Rod à la British convention. Irrelevant fun fact: Beaulieu, located in the lovely New Forest, was an important RAF base in WWII.]

2) "Maggie May" was an underestimated B-side (let's pause for a moment of 45 rpm nostalgia), and owes its début to a curious Cleveland DJ.

3) Young Rod was "discovered" at train station, playing harmonica and dressed in rags, by Long John Baldry.

4) Rod collects art, particularly Pre-Raphaelite paintings (because they often portray mermaid-torsoed, long-haired damsels??) and has hung many examples across his four domiciles. Check out the one on his wall in Beverly Hills. Wow.

I'll leave you to discover the remaining lightly scandalous (no airplane stories) Rod bits on your own.

Fear not, intellectual types: Litagogo will resume its regularly-scheduled pretentious literary posting next week.

*Online link to Rod's interview with Kirsty Lang on the BBC's Front Row programme.
iTunes link to Rod Stewart on the BBC's Front Row Daily podcast of 10/18/12.


Storm Distraction Podcasts

"Storm in the Mountains," about 1870, by Albert Bierstadt
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 
Storm warnings, impending storms, and hovering storms make me edgy and distracted. I'm always waiting for a widowmaker to fall off one of the 100-year-old oaks on our street, or for the power to go out. Right now in the Boston area we're on the edge of the blandly-dubbed Hurricane "Sandy," and although we're getting off light compared to New York and New Jersey, I find it hard to focus with the wind gusting up to 63 mph and the interior doors ghosting back and forth.

Podcasts are good for storms, because you can go around doing storm prep while listening, and once the storm is upon you a podcast can take your mind off those wavering branches, or in the case of my niece in Brooklyn, a swaying 4th floor apartment.

Here's a sampling of old podcast favorites that should get you through a storm (click on titles to go to podcast links):

The New Yorker: Fiction Podcast: Paul Theroux Reads Jorge Luis Borges
Paul Theroux reads "The Gospel According to Mark," Jorge Luis Borges' allegorical story about a well-intentioned young medical student trapped in the Pampas by wet weather. They don't structure stories like this any more. A robust 20 minutes.

The Guardian Book Podcasts: Andrew O'Hagan: Burns Night Special
Robert Burns expert Andrew O'Hagan hails from the Scottish bard's windswept Ayrshire. In this half-hour podcast he reads three of Burns' works in the accent they deserve. Wrap yourself in your plaidie and listen to the storm-perfect "O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast"(poem text link).

The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick II (#368)
Ed Champion conducts a wonderful discussion of writing craft with master writer Cynthia Ozick. Uncompromising and stimulating, it's a conversation to take your mind off almost any meteorological threat. Approximately one hour.

Guardian Short Stories Podcast: Helen Simpson Reads "The Kitchen Child" by Angela Carter
A great story read extremely well. Conveys much concupiscent culinary coziness. About half an hour.

BBC World Service's World Book Club: Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien reminisces about boarding school, her formation as a writer, the censoriousness of 1950s Ireland and answers questions (including one from Anne Enright!). She also reads from "The Country Girls."


Hear Junot Diaz Quip Fast and Read an Early Story

Junot Diaz, newly named a MacArthur Fellow for 2012, is a great podcast subject. This "Diaz Distilled in 13 Minutes" Litagogo post from 2009 has links to two great vintage Junot Diaz podcasts:

•a 2007 "Meet the Writers" Barnes & Noble podcast in which Diaz displays his wit and explains his geometric approach to story structure in under 13 minutes, and

•a 2007 "New Yorker: Fiction" podcast in which Diaz reads his classic early story, "How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)."

Listening links at the 2009 Litagogo post.


Zadie Smith Talks About NW in London

"I wrote it [NW] almost entirely in a library in Manhattan."--Zadie Smith

In terms of language and dialogue Zadie Smith's NW is one of the most alive novels I've read this year. As I wrote in my review of NW for Shelf Awareness, "One does not read NW so much as eavesdrop on it."

NW is brainy and philosophical and also entirely accessible--no fancy words, just life transcribed through an intelligence that notices all the intersections among class, race, turf and ambition for a collection of modern Brits who grew up in the North West (NW) postal district of London. There is heart also, particularly in the middle Felix section, which travels all the way south to Soho (W1) and arcs like a mini-Ulysses between the Leah and Natalie/Keisha sections.

Because Smith's style in NW is idiosyncratically Woolfian you have to pay attention to who's speaking or thinking, but it's not that difficult. A moderate tolerance for non-standard typography and chapter length is also helpful, but that's all you need to be immersed in NW's multi-charactered world.

I've been listening to Zadie Smith podcasts both new and old to find something to recommend as an accompaniment to NW. One thing I discovered is that Smith is far more comfortable talking to fellow writers than to journalists. She is also staggeringly polite to journalists who ask ham-fisted questions about race and novels.

Never mind, all you need to scratch your itch for live Smith is to listen to her in conversation with Nikesh Shukla on his "Subaltern" podcast from September 2012. (Here's the iTunes link to Zadie Smith on the Subaltern podcast.) The podcast is only 30 minutes long but it's incredibly satisfying, quick without being "lite," relaxed yet jammed with interesting stuff. Smith reveals how she arrived at the relative spareness of NW after attempting to write a 120-page version (!), muses on mature existentialism, riffs amusingly on the difference between being edited by magazine and newspaper editors in the UK ("random") vs. the U.S. ("relentless"), admires the multiplicity of James Baldwin's perspective, rues the challenge of writing realism in the digital age (Tao Lin), chats about the experience of doing a profile of Jay-Z for The New York Times, and hints at what she might write next.

P.S. For the completist, Guernica Magazine has posted a video of Smith in conversation with Nathan Englander in 2010 at a fundraiser for the Dadaab Young Women's Scholarship Initiative, in which Smith's comments on writing and identity seem to point to NW. 


Maurice Sendak, King of All Wild Things: A Retrospective Rumpus of Links

"And when he came to the place where the wild things are..."

UPDATE: Fresh Air has released a 45-minute memorial compilation of Terry Gross's interviews with Maurice Sendak from 1986-2011. It's fascinating to hear how his voice grows pleasantly gruff with age. (The compilation includes material described in the September 2011 podcast listed below.)

"I am in love with the world"
The great thing about Maurice Sendak, apart from his immortal opus and his gleeful bicuspids, is that he never became pompous or preening or patronizing. His late interviews are seminars in how to live impishly and passionately up until the last minute, and though I was sad to learn of Sendak's death on May 7, 2012, when I re-listened to his September 2011 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, I was consoled by Sendak's satisfaction with his own life ("I'm happy," "It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to take the time to read the books, to listen to the music,") and his bracing acceptance of death ("Oh God, there are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready.")

Sendak's last Fresh Air interview is perhaps not the interview to start with, because it is lachrymose with Sendak's grief over the deaths of people he's loved, so I would save it for last. Here is a suggested order of listening for my top Sendak audio and visual interviews (not all are available on podcast):

TateShots on Sendak's Illustrious Inspirations (December 2011)
In this 5-minute video interview from the UK's Tate museum Sendak talks about the inspirations for his art, including William Blake, Philip Otto Runge and other German Romantic painters. It shows Sendak's bookshelves and framed prints and his dog, Herman (named after Melville).
Downloadable iTunes link for the TateShots interview with Maurice Sendak.

Bill Moyers Uncovers the Genesis of Where The Wild Things Are (2004)
This 17-minute video interview with Bill Moyers on PBS's "Now" program is one of the best on the familial inspirations and drawing-limitation origins of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, plus his attitudes about children's literature (which Moyers suggests is "like fighting guerrilla warfare"), Sendak's collaboration with über-editor Ursula Nordstrom, and the childhood fears instilled by the Lindbergh baby abduction.

Marker-Sniffing à Deux on the The Colbert Report (2011)
Most everyone I know has already seen these. A pair of delightfully acerbic, giddy and impish video interviews, conducted at Sendak's home in Connecticut, replete with middle school shenanigans. The universe is lucky Colbert filmed these when he did.
Online page for "Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Part 1" (7 1/2 minutes)

Sendak's Last Fresh Air Appearance (September 2011)
Ostensibly scheduled to promote the release of Sendak's Bumble-ardy, this 18-minute interview with Terry Gross quickly deepens into a discussion of life, lost friends and lovers, the beauty of the world, Sendak's philosophical attitude toward death. It concludes with his heartfelt benediction for Gross: "Live your life, live your life, live your life."


Toni Morrison on Beloved (c. 2009)

"So he raced from dogwood to blossoming peach."

In 2009 Toni Morrison visited the BBC's World Book Club to discuss her Pulitzer-Prizewinning masterpiece Beloved with host Harriet Gilbert and an international group of fans. The BBC has re-podcasted the recording of Morrison's appearance in honor of the 25th anniversary of Beloved's publication. The Book Club members' questions are fine, but the author is sublime, despite having arrived at London's South Bank Arts Center after a red-eye transatlantic flight. Morrison is genial, generous and gracious with her interlocutors, one of whom is only nine years old.

The Origins of Beloved
Morrison talks about the nonfiction incident that germinated the unforgettable and signifying act of Beloved, as well as the limited usefulness of anger as muse and her narrative design for the novel. To put the difficulty of writing into perspective Morrison tells the story of her grandmother leaving Alabama for the North with six children and 30 dollars and no set plan for what to do when she arrived. Morrison also reads three passages from Beloved, including the devastating section in which Sethe addresses the girl whom she takes to be her daughter (at Minute 35)--a gorgeous piece of audio.

The podcast lasts just over 50 minutes, and can be listened to online at the BBC's World Book Club archive, and also downloaded from the BBC's World Book Club iTunes feed here (this link may expire).


Cheryl Strayed Talks Wild, Sugar

"What had I gotten myself into?"
UPDATE: There's a great new podcasted interview of Cheryl Strayed by Diane Rehm for her WAMU Show. Topics include a lotta Wild and a dash of Sugar. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Links: a perishable iTunes podcast of Cheryl Strayed on the Diane Rehm Show or clickable audio on the WAMU site (the WAMU site audio should be available longer than the podcast.)
You can also get strong hit of Strayed openness along with some writing advice in this Days of Yore print interview of Cheryl Strayed by H. Henderson and Kassi Underwood (not a podcast).

Pre-Wild Publication Interview
This interview with Cheryl Strayed on Brad Listi's Other People Podcast from February 2012 is a great teaser for Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailStrayed's forthcoming memoir about her bereft 1,100-mile hike with only a backpack nicknamed "Monster" to keep her company. The podcast (iTunes link) will expose you to enough about Wild to help you decide whether or not you want to read it, but it will not spoil it for you. (If you want to see a preview in print, here's an excerpt of Wild via Vogue--talk about footwear disconnect.) In the podcast Strayed and Listi also talk a bit about Strayed's previously anonymous role as the truth-talkin'-mama behind the "Dear Sugar" advice column for The Rumpus, and how after Strayed came out as "Sugar" on Valentine's Day she received 6,000 emails. Yowza. Whether she's sharing her grieving process or dishing out free life advice, Strayed manages to make openness embracing and sympathy unsimpery.


Stephanie Vaughn's Niagara Stories

"Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again."
Of Crocuses and Boxies
The first time I listened to a Stephanie Vaughn short story was the New Yorker: Fiction's podcast of  Tobias Wolff reading Vaughn's "Dog Heaven" back in 2008. That story opens with the line quoted in the caption above, and I thought about it this week when the crocuses came up early, because I'm not sure if Wes, my son's hibernating three-toed box turtle, will have survived this winter's fickle thaws followed by hard frosts. Crocuses are a harbinger of both spring and pet death for me. Last year Scout, Wes's erstwhile love object and rescue partner, was caught out above ground too early during a far more temperature-consistent winter. Scout had only one back leg, and too much of her literary namesake's curiosity without enough of her sense, and I console myself to think that Scout had at least one decade of "Turtle Heaven" springs replete with wood lice feastings before her old raccoon-imposed or dog-imposed (we'll never know) amputation made it too hard for her to burrow back down once the ground refroze.

"Dog Heaven" Is Not Unbearably Sad
Vaughn's army base daughter character reminds me a lot of the literary (not chelonian) Scout, and any parent looking for worthwhile girl heroines should consider downloading this podcast of Wolff reading "Dog Heaven" and playing it on their car sound system the next time they have their teen captive for a 40-minute drive. It's about middle schoolers, but it's a grownup story, and although its agency of loss is rooted in either bad luck or carelessness or human viciousness, the moments in the story that fuse as "Dog Heaven" assuage its sturdy acknowledgement of sadness and separation. The joyfulness and rampant affection demonstrated by the dog-character Duke sustains the narrator and the reader without being cutesy-poochy, plus Duke's barkalogue as read by Wolff is the best human evocation of dog-language-thought I've ever heard. Vaughn's physical descriptions of Duke aren't too shaggy, either: "the red glory of his fur flying," "the dog swims his heavy fur into the black Niagara River" and a combination of e- and r-rich adjectives applied to Duke's eyebrows that will touch you when you hear it and slay you with its orthographic poetry when you see it printed on the page. (The text version of "Dog Heaven" is only accessible to subscribers on The New Yorker site, but there's a link to the publisher of Vaughn's re-issued short story collection at the end of this post).)

Short Story Mastery
Vaughn does everything well, not just strong girl heroines and three-dimensional canines. Her story structure and foreshadowing is genius-level yet transparent (Chekhov's pistol blah-blah-blah). She sketches the routines and settings of army brat life in her Fort Niagara indelibly. Middle school life is depicted in all its weirdness and asperity. Far better than most contemporary authors, Vaughn uses fresh-yet-frictionless language to conjure the emotions in a person, a dog, and even an entire classroom (N.B. the "Fact Monday" scene in "Dog Heaven"). Her flexing of narrative time and her use of echoing imagery is so fluid and subtle that you only notice it after the fact (Wolff and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman cover this in their discussion after the story). Vaughn also redeems lyric description into a necessity (N.B. the ice storm landscape). I could nota bene the heck out of this story, so please just go ahead and listen to it.
Online link to New Yorker: Fiction podcast of "Dog Heaven"
iTunes link to New Yorke: Fiction podcast of "Dog Heaven"

No Dogs in "Able Baker Charlie Dog"
I feel as if all of the above slights "Able Baker Charlie Dog," the other Vaughn Niagara army kid story available on the New Yorker: Fiction podcast, this one published earlier in the magazine but recorded much more recently by Téa Obreht. It's good in many of the same ways as "Dog Heaven," and it goes some way toward satisfying the inevitable craving for more of Stephanie Vaughn's writing, but I'd recommend listening to the masterful "Dog Heaven" first to avoid diluting its power by semi-similarity.
Online link to New Yorker: Fiction podcast of "Able Baker Charlie Dog"
iTunes link to New Yorker: Fiction podcast of "Able Baker Charlie Dog"

Sweet Talk is Back in Print!
I'm very happy to report that the formerly-out-of print Sweet Talk, the short story collection that contains Vaughn's Niagara stories plus some decidedly non-middle-school material, has been republished by Other Press, in a delightfully affordable paperback edition, as well as in e-book form. Apparently Vaughn fanship on Goodreads inspired the reissue--hooray for reader-driven publishing! Finally, here's a very nice online interview of Stephanie Vaughn by Patrick Somerville for The Rumpus.

Scout in the Mist
FTC Disclaimer: Podcasts are free, my New Yorker subscription (for print access) is a perennial Valentine paid for by my own ex-army dad, and I gain nothing but Vaughnevangelistic joy if you decide to buy a copy of Sweet Talk.


Podpistil: Rex Pickett Post-Sideways

Podpistils are short pips to podcasts I've listened to lately.
Rex Pickett on Brad Listi's Other People Podcast from January 2012 (iTunes link here). Pickett tells Listi the Cinderella story that began after Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor made his autobiographical novel Sideways into a bourgie-darling, pinot-pimping movie and explains why his sequel to Sideways (titled Vertical, natch) is self-pubbed and as yet un-filmed. A highly cautionary 75 minutes of un-spun dish on rejection, debt, agents, serendipity, dollars, rights, location boom, spit bucket celebrity and failure-to-cash-in.


Jeanette Winterson On Fiction and Fact

"I learned really early on that if you can read yourself as a fiction,
 as well as a fact, then you really can expand the self."
UPDATE: If you prefer to hear Winterson in conversation*, you can listen to a podcast of the cozy interview she did for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? with Eleanor Wachtel for CBC's Writers & Co. The hour-long interview includes a compassionate discussion of Mrs. Winterson (who committed the literary sin of recasting the ending of Jane Eyre when she read it to little Jeanette) as well as the story of how Accrington's Henrietta Alger talked her way into Oxford. At Minute 46, Wachtel elicits Winterson's two-track writing process for the memoir, and then the conversation opens into high-stakes emotional territory (this section previews the memoir's darkest and most miraculous scene). Links: The online listening page for the Writers & Co. Winterson interview is here. The link to download the podcast of the Writers & Co Winterson interview from iTunes is here (the iTunes link may expire).

*Even if you prefer conversation, please sample the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival podcast reviewed below to hear Winterson read a classic excerpt from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (just past Minute 11).

Tent Talk
Jeanette Winterson's memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? will be published in the U.S. in March 2012. Its split halves comprise a hindsight analysis of the writer's childhood under the dominion of a larger-than-life Pentecostal evangelical mother and an as-it-was-lived account of her midlife search for her biological mother. (Winterson skips over 25 years of her somewhat salacious salad days with the tease, "Maybe later...".) I can't reveal any more about Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? before my review appears in Shelf Awareness Pro [now available!], but I can tell you that if you want a stealth preview that combines highlights from Winterson's autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit with nonfiction material from her life, you can listen to this lively hour-long podcast of Winterson working a tent full of literary pilgrims at the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Winterson's oratorical training as a half-pint proselytizer is in full evidence, as is her philosophical sense of humor.

The Heathen Next Door
Winterson begins her talk with the opening pages of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit ("My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle"), followed by an account of the real-life Mrs. Winterson's habit of keeping a revolver in the duster drawer (just one example of how Winterson's childhood truth is more frightening than her childhood fiction). Just past Minute 11 Winterson swoops from conversational chumminess about the state of the memoir into declaiming, "The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation." Winterson's abrupt transition and her penetrating projection are enough to make even the most secular soul sense a Presence. Maybe the suddenness was created by podcast post-editing, but I doubt it, and regardless, it's a thrilling piece of audio brought on by voice and enhanced by Winterson's Lancashire accent. The Heathen on Sunday excerpt is hilarious and wonderfully specific in its details, and I won't spoil it for you if you've never read Oranges, except to defy you not to laugh out loud when Winterson reads, "While my mother was covering up the television, Mrs White was slithering up and down the skirting board," or not to cringe-laugh at the spotty backyard crescendo. (Any writer looking for craft tips would do well to study Winterson's use of verbs and short segments of dialogue.)

"The trouble with a book"
There are many similarities between the personal anecdotes Winterson tells in this Edinburgh International Book Festival podcast and what she wrote in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Having read the memoir after hearing the podcast, I can reassure you that there's plenty in the book that doesn't get mentioned in the podcast, particularly the second half about her search for the truth about her birth mother.) Some of the nonfiction highlights from the talk: Winterson's early relationship with Bible and the text ("I was fed with words and shod with them"--Minute 23);  Mrs. Winterson's treatment of non-mystery novels as the forbidden fruit and young Jeanette's paperback concealment method (Minute 25); teenage Winterson's T.S. Eliot epiphany on the steps of the Accrington Public Library (Minute 30); and the real-life conversation that generated the title quotation, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Minute 34). What's not in any book, or in any other podcast I've ever listened to: a vocal imitation of a geysering varicose vein (Minute 39).

Maternal Questions
During the Q & A portion of the talk an audience member asks Winterson what she would say to Mrs. Winterson (now deceased) if she were sitting in a chair "right there" (Minute 47). Jeanette Winterson makes a little joke, and then answers seriously: "I'd say, 'Why aren't you proud of me?'" She quickly backfills the hush of poignance that follows by adding, "Sad, isn't it? But, I might also say, 'Everything is forgiven.'" It's not just festival tent talk--Winterson's portrayal of her adoptive mother in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is shockingly forgiving, and something to be proud of.

Disclosure: I bought my own copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in London many pears ago, but I received a free advance proof of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? to review from Grove Press via Shelf Awareness.

Podcast Series Note: The Edinburgh International Book Festival podcast is worth sampling, and offers an eclectic selection of writers. I commend them for not retiring their content as some other podcasts do. It's all up on iTunes for downloading portability, and it's all free.