Sarah Bannan selects her top 10 literary podcasts
‘For book-lovers like me, who are short on time and poor at meeting the schedules of the radio, the explosion of cultural podcasts has been a life-changer’
Author Sarah Bannan: “Podcasts mean I’m up to date, I’m engaged and I’m challenged. It means that I can hear from my favourite authors, and authors I’ve never heard of, without travelling across the globe. It means I have company for my walks, my runs, my late nights with my daughter, my early evenings in the kitchen.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
I’m a writer. And a reader. And a runner. And a mother.
I’m busy. I don’t drive. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking. And I spend a lot of time on my feet: pushing my daughter in her pram to creche, walking to work, running in the park. This gives me time with my own thoughts, which are, for the most part, pleasant enough company. But sometimes my own head is a place of worry and list-making, and I’d much rather have it filled with voices other than my own.
Enter the podcast. I discovered the wonder of podcasts in 2009. I was on vacation and tired of listening to music on long runs. I put a search into Google for “cultural podcasts”. I found Slate and the New Yorker and the Guardian: all of them with podcasts. And then I discovered: all of those radio programmes I had been missing? I could just download them as podcasts and listen later. I didn’t need to listen when they actually aired. (I know, a late revelation.)
In no time, I was hooked. For book-lovers like me, who are short on time and poor at meeting the schedules of the radio, the explosion of cultural podcasts has been a life-changer. It means I’m up to date, I’m engaged and I’m challenged. It means that I can hear from my favourite authors, and authors I’ve never heard of, without travelling across the globe. It means I have company for my walks, my runs, my late nights with my daughter, my early evenings in the kitchen.
The Irish Times, of course, has its own monthly book club podcast and weekly culture podcast, both of which are excellent, and form part of my podcast diet, but I’ve pulled together 10 others, which I also adore, and which you may or may not know.
And, you may know some of these only as radio programmes and, like I once did, kick yourself for missing them when life gets ahead of you. Well, kick yourself no more. Plug in. Enjoy!
Once a month, the Slate Audio Book Club gets together to discuss a book. They are the smarter, funnier, better-read version of your own book club. (They’re also 100 per cent sober, from what I can tell, which also differentiates them from mine.) The listener is advised to read the book in advance of the podcast, which I always do, and then three contributors have it out. They talk about traditional book club questions – likability, thumbs up/thumbs down – but then they always dig a bit deeper. Covering classics like The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye, alongside newer titles like Girl on the Train and How to Be Both, the Audio Book Club always makes me think about the books I loved or loathed in a slightly different way, it makes me reconsider my assumptions and opens my eyes to something new.
On the most recent episode, the critics had a brilliant and thought-provoking conversation about Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk...and their April 10th discussion about Ali Smith’s mindbending novel, How to Be Both, was enlightening and lively.
Every week, I tune into the Slate Culture Gabfest. It shows up in my podcast-feed on Wednesday morning, which means I have it to keep me company on my early morning 10k. (Honestly, this podcast gets me out the door even when the weather is miserable and dark).
When I was on maternity leave and normal sleeping hours eluded me, I was known to download this in the middle of the night, and plug myself into my headphones while praying my daughter would sleep.
The show is hosted by Stephen Metcalf, a writer and critic for Slate, and he punctures even the most serious cultural topics with humour and self-deprecation. Usually about 45 minutes, the culture gabfest covers everything from the latest exhibition at the Moma to the most recent Fast and Furious film (they weren’t mad on it, by the way). Joined by Slate’s editor-in-chief Julia Turner and Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens, Metcalf guides the listener through thoughtful conversations about contemporary culture, always with wit, contrarianism (Slate’s hallmark) and seriousness, all three in equal measure. The contributors have been at this for years and, as such, the style is relaxed and chatty, and the show is always expertly produced.
The May 6th episode discussed the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; the physical and psychological benefits of boxing; and whether or not there is a “thing” for something called “dad bod”.
Before we all went crazy for Serial, we had This American Life. A weekly public radio show broadcast on over 500 stations to over 2 million people, it’s produced by Chicago Public Radio and has won every broadcasting award under the sun. The format is simple: presented by Ira Glass, a lively and lovely and wonderful host, there’s a theme to each episode, and a range of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, but not always. Guest story-tellers have included David Sedaris, Mike Birbiglia and Molly Ringwald, and the stories are as diverse as they are wonderful. What all have in common is this: brilliant storytelling, brilliant production values and brilliant, sometimes earth-shattering, insights.
The show is about one hour long, with a new episode each week. I listen to This American Life when I go on long runs and then I usually listen again with my husband in the kitchen as we prepare dinner.
Honestly, even when I think the topic doesn’t interest me, and I’m sure I won’t like it: I’m inevitably sucked in. The writing is so fine that the creators have published a range of anthologies with pieces from the programme, and it demonstrates the capacity of creative non-fiction to captivate and excite.
On April 24th, This American Life ran its episode The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind, charting those rare instances when people changed their opinions about fundamental issues, ideas and ways of being. Particularly apt in the run-up to the May 22nd referendum…
Once a week, the fine people at the Guardian give us a new Guardian Book Podcast. Presented by editor of Guardian books Claire Armitstead, and joined by Guardian writer Richard Lea, this fine podcast includes author interviews, readings and discussions, along with full recordings of the Guardian’s book club. Episodes are frequently themed, and the end-of-year round-ups are especially wonderful, as are the start-of-the-year forecasts. These range in length, but are alwaysengaging and beautifully produced, and always pushing me out the door to buy new and unexpected titles.
The April 3rd episode with John Gray and Will Self was, unsurprisingly, absolutely fascinating, as was the podcast’s interview with poet Paul Muldoon on February 6th, 2015.
I don’t know how I existed before we had The Book Show. I say this to my husband after I finish listening to every episode, which is usually on a Sunday evening, the day after it airs. (Our house is small and I savour this programme too much to risk interruption by my toddler!) The show is a little present to me – that and my Sunday-evening glass of wine – and it’s my cure for the Sunday-night blues. The Book Show has everything: readings, interviews, quizzes, competitions and news. It’s a smart mix of current and more researched pieces, and is held together by Sinéad Gleeson’s astute and assured presenting and interviewing style. The production values are terrific, and the show is atmospheric and expertly-paced. Gleeson has a way of asking just the right questions, getting the best and most insightful responses from her guests. And the researchers and producers seem to know exactly who to invite to join the programme, who to pair, and how to pull music and sound to make the show come alive.
It’s all great here, but some favourite 2015 episodes have included Ali Smith, Jenny Offill, Ralph Fiennes and Roddy Doyle. I only wish that The Book Show could be a year-round project, and extended by another half hour….
When my daughter was very small, she fell asleep in my lap every evening, following feeding and stories and….waiting. Me, afraid to move or breathe or get up too quickly after she’d drifted off to sleep. So I had to master sitting still. The whole routine usually took about an hour, and it was an hour in which I desperately wanted to remain awake, as what followed would be dinner, and my only time throughout the day to talk to an adult . So, my solution? To keep me awake and from going crazy? To keep me feeling like a relevant person with a functioning brain? I played an episode of the New Yorker’s wonderful Fiction Podcast every evening.
The concept is simple but the execution is key. Every week the New Yorker’s incredible fiction editor Deborah Treisman invites a New Yorker author to come to the podcast, read a story that was once published in the magazine, and then discuss it with her at the end. Because it’s The New Yorker, the writers are superb. So too are the stories. And, of course, so is Treisman, with great questions, great insights and great banter. Think Anne Enright reading Raymond Carver’s The Swimmer. Think Roddy Doyle reading Maeve Brennan’s Christmas Eve.
One of the most recent episodes featured Joshua Ferris reading Going for a Beer, by Robert Coover, which appeared in the magazine in 2011. “It just can’t be denied that when you read this piece you can’t stop reading it,” Ferris says in conversation with Treisman. “It’s like an energy that just barrels over you, and you can’t stop it because it’s so immediate – and really beautiful.”
This extraordinary Canadian programme may be the best author interview programme around. Some of this is down to the show’s length – 52 minutes or so is a proper amount of time to get into a writer’s work - but most of it is down to Eleanor Wachtel, a witty, wise and warm interviewer, with heaps of intelligence and smart and clear questions.
Wachtel is regarded as the world’s master of the literary interview and, as such, she has published four collections of wonderfully illuminating and thought-provoking interviews with some of the world’s greatest writers. A definite addition to your subscription list.
The range of writers included in the programme is impressive – the current series, Re-imagining the Balkans, has introduced me to a host of new writers – as is its ability to engage with writers at the height of their careers, including, most recently, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson and Anne Tyler.
In Mariella Frostrup’s consistently fabulous half-hour radio programme, we get an inside look at new fiction and non-fiction, we hear candid and sometimes offbeat interviews with authors and publishers, and we take a look at works that might have been lost or overlooked. The programme is expertly judged and researched, and endeavours to include a vibrant mixture of old and new, literary and less literary, established and emerging.
With a great line-up of authors and critics, and because of Frostrup’s skill and subtlety, Open Book is what I turn on at lunch-time when I need a break from writing, when it all seems a little too hard or scary. Something about Frostrup’s warm and intelligent presence reassures me that the work can and will be done, and that reading is as great a feat of imagination as writing, that readers and reading are essential and vibrant parts of the culture.
On May 10th, Open Book featured an excellent interview with Anne Enright, to mark the publication of her stellar new novel The Green Road. The show, with its trademark attention to platforming newer voices, also introduced Spill Simmer Falter Wither author Sara Baume to a wider, British audience. The show concluded with a lively and intelligent panel discussion including Enright and Baume, along with Publishing Ireland’s Grainne Clear and The Book Show’s Sinéad Gleeson.
In his short time with the Poetry Programme on RTÉ, Rick O’Shea has proven himself to be an adept, agile and adventurous guide to the rich and changing world of poetry. The mixture of guests and panel discussions has been terrific - with established poets like Paul Durcan and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, alongside newer voices like Caoilinn Hughes and a broad range of international poets. Life offers little better than hearing poets read their own work, reflecting on their own inspirations. O’Shea has a light touch and the programme has grown in ambition as time as moved on. Here’s looking forward to many more years…
On Saturday, April 18th, the programme was dedicated to Colm Tóibín’s new book, On Elizabeth Bishop. The programme offers a deeply personal interview with Tóibín, and includes rare recordings of readings by Bishop herself.
Presented by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, Slate’s Lexicon Valley is an infectious podcast about language and linguistics, exploring everything from etymologies to literary translation, and all in the most inviting and delightful way possible. For those who travel through the world correcting other peoples’ grammar and punctuation, if only in your heads, this is your podcast of choice. You’ll find out why Irish people say “Maths” and Americans say “Math”, the origins of the word “seersucker”, and why we say “twenty-four” and not “four and twenty”.The podcast is smart and funny and almost unaccountably interesting. I listen to it and feel immediately smarter (and probably become more annoying).
An old favourite of mine is Sarah Palin’s Pronouns about the rhetorical effect of “this, that, these, and those”, while The Many Lives of Anna Karenina, in which journalist and author Masha Gessen discusses the challenge of translating the masterpiece, is utterly fascinating.
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless, published by Bloomsbury Circus.