Wednesday, June 02, 2010

In praise of podcasts

I arrived in London, Ontario yesterday, having departed St. John's in my car last Thursday. I drove across the island (ten hours), and slept on the night ferry from Port-aux-Basques to North Sydney. Some brake trouble caused me to stop in Sydney, which delayed me for a few hours while some nice people at Canadian Tire fixed things up, and so on Friday I got as far as Fredericton. Saturday, in a fit of energy and no small measure of psychosis, I pushed all the way on to Toronto ... a drive of fourteen hours that got me to my parents' door a little before nine o'clock in the evening.

One thing I have to say: were it not for the phenomenon on podcasts, in conjunction with audiobooks, such a drive would be substantially more gruelling. Normally after several days on the road, the passenger seat is a mess of CDs and their cases. This year I wisely invested in a nifty little device that synchs up with your radio and broadcasts your iPod over a blank FM band. Much neater, and I could just load up a playlist and let it go.

I listened to music at times, but for the most part had podcasts queued up. Among the notable entries were NPR's This American Life, a weekly radio show that features different variations on a given theme in the form of documentaries, stories, spoken word performances or readings, and interviews. also has a decent slate of podcasts on a variety of topics, from politics to culture to movies, in which a handful of the online magazine's writers basically chat for forty-five minutes or so.

I also have to give a special shout-out, as I do periodically on this blog, to my friend Gregg at Decoder Ring Theatre, which produces the two excellent old-style radio dramas The Adventures of the Red Panda and Black Jack Justice. DRT releases a new episode twice a month, and for those who have not yet taken my advice to check it out, you have an embarrassment of riches: sixty episodes of The Red Panda and thirty-six of Black Jack Justice. Anyone planning a long road trip, or who simply loves well-made radio drama in the tradition of The Shadow and RKO Studios, is strongly encouraged to check them out. In spite of the fact that Gregg releases a half-hour episode every two weeks, the writing is superb and the voice acting simply amazing. Speaking as someone whose own writing is, well, glacial, I am in awe of how consistently good they are.

A frequently podcast sponsor is the audiobook site, and if you sign up through one of the Slate podcasts or NPR, you get a free audiobook with your membership. I got two for the road. First was a book I read last summer, but was keen to listen to the audio version because of its cast: Max Brooks' World War Z, a novel that imagines a global zombie outbreak, the conflict that follows, and the aftermath. And by "imagines," I mean that Brooks—author of The Zombie Survival Handbook—thinks very carefully through what a zombie outbreak would look like and writes a series of testimonials by survivors from around the world. As I said on this blog last year when I reviewed it, it is a surprisingly good novel.

The audiobook is also worth a listen however, even if you've already read the novel. Why? Because Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks, and apparently used his dad's connections to pull in some pretty impressive voice talent. Because the novel is a series of interviews and testimonials, the multiple-voice audio version works beautifully ... even more so because reading the roles are actors like Eammon Walker, Jay Sanders, Alan Alda, Jurgen Prochnow, Rob Reiner, Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Henry Rollins, Carl Reiner, and others. Definitely worth a listen.

My other audiobook was Ian McEwan's latest, Solar, a satire on the current political clusterfuck that is the debate over climate change. I was fairly impressed with the novel, but need to think about it a bit more before I offer a more measured critical response—listening to the book rather than reading it is a rather different experience, and I am not sure whether I think that it was a collection of well-wrought set-pieces that don't necessarily always work together, or whether that is a product of me listening to it while driving and occasionally having my mind wander.

I will say this much, however: I got the sense that, with this novel, McEwan is responding to John Banville's notoriously scathing review of Saturday—a review often credited with sinking Saturday's chance to win the Booker. One of Banville's quibbles with Saturday is that its protagonist has a too unbelievably perfect life. Henry Perowne is successful neurosurgeon married to an attractive high-powered lawyer with whom he is still deeply in love and on whom he has never cheated; they live in a huge, beautiful house; their daughter is a brilliant and promising young poet who has just published her first book, and their son an exceptionally talented blues guitarist. Conversely, Michael Beard of Solar is short, balding, going to fat, and just emerging from his fifth failed marriage. He is an inveterate womanizer and borderline alcoholic, and is further addicted to a wide range of fatty food. He is a physicist and has essentially spent his life coasting on having won the Nobel Prize in his mid-thirties—and has not done a lick of real science since, but instead pulls down a host of sinecures from sitting on boards and foundations that want the reflected glow of his Nobel.

Listening to the various vivid descriptions (say what you will about McEwan's writing, but when it comes to his prose, the boy has got some game) of Beard's crapulescence, I couldn't help thinking about Banville's (also eloquent) reaming of Henry Perowne as a character. Ironically, I think Beard is comparably unlikely. But more on Solar when I've had more of a chance to think about it.

In the meantime: tune in tomorrow as we take the Vampire Cage Matches off hiatus and show what will undoubtedly be a barn-burner of a showdown between Blade and Underworld's Selene. Stay tuned!


Melissa said...

Is the Untitled Newfoundland Zombie Project dead? (or undead?) Listening to Great Big Sea's new song, Safe Upon the Shore, I thought for a brief moment that it was going to be a zombie wasn't, but the idea has potential!

Chris in NF said...

I wouldn't say dead, just on sabbatical. I still return to it every once in a while, and have about half of it sketched out. The plan is to start posting it in installments again once I have enough in the can that I won't leave huge gaps between posts. :-)

Anonymous said...

I almost entirely agree! ian m does have "some game" and the various scraps and fleeting lecturely scans have surely been some sustenance for my "Odd light"
i have reminisced these past few days,my old chum, since finding your poem written in response to me in a bottom drawer beneath my first dissertation.Glad to see you kepping the fire roaring Chris and actually guessed you would most likely be in new york or somewhere south of that border.
I am currently rounding off my masters at glasgow under the encyclopedic wing of the enchanting and legendary Michael Schmiddt! It would be tremendous to catch up with you on facebook,for auld lang synes my dear,for auld lang synes!
check me out on facebook chris, im now writing under the name Paul John McCafferty."Among the just, be just, amongst the filthy,filthy too and in his own weak person,if he can, duly put up with all the wrongs of man" Old Wystan Auden at his near pinnacle.
all good things, Paul.