“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” by Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

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“My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anaesthesia during a triple bypass.”

And the year rushes to a close with one final slim volume slipping through the gate, also bringing the decade’s current total up to a nice round seven hundred.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is another one of those Vonnegut classics where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t, as he seems to be a considerable part of the plot. Originally taken from a WNYC broadcast, the collection has expanded a little and is a set of very short stories where Vonnegut is taken to the brink of death to pass up “the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates” to interview the famous and departed. The Dr. Kevorkian of the title was a real man, an American pathologist who believed in euthanasia.

On his journeys to the edge of Heaven, Vonnegut meets and speaks with many famous people including Isaac Asimov, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Philip Strax and, of course, the ever-present Kilgore Trout. He doesn’t quite hit it off with William Shakespeare, who speaks only in quotations from his plays, and he learns that Isaac Newton isn’t satisfied with all his scientific discoveries and is furious he didn’t also come up with evolution, germ theory and relativity. Adolf Hitler meanwhile reckons that he and Eva also suffered because of the war, and hopes that there is a memorial to him on Earth. Vonnegut doesn’t let him know how that turned out.

There’s not much to say about the book really. It’s cute, silly, funny and quite poignant in several places as Vonnegut explores the potential thoughts of these people once they’d departed from Earth. There’s also a lovely foreword by Neil Gaiman in which he too claims to be taken to the afterlife to meet Vonnegut in order to get a quote for the book. Unwilling to think up anything new, he’s told to use something that he’d said elsewhere. Gaiman shares the following quote, which seems even more important in these divisive times:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

There we have it. Happy new year, everyone – hope 2019 is a delight and full of amazing books. Don’t forget, you can always pre-order mine to get yourself in the mood. See you on the other side!

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Podcasts: Part Two

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Last month I reviewed four of my favourite podcasts, and now I’m back with another four. Let’s get going!

podcast 5Podcast: Flash Forward
Number of Episodes: 15+
Release: Every other Tuesday

As humans, we seem to spend an awful lot of time worrying about the future. Will we be successful? Will we be happy? Will we survive? In Flash Forward, every episode sees host Rose Eveleth conjure up a possible future for humanity. The show combines snippets of drama as we hear the future played out as if it’s happening, and masses of interesting information, as she speaks to experts about whether the future she’s envisioned could ever become a possibility.

Episode topics covered recently include a future where everyone wore lie detectors all the time, a future where we’d eradicated mosquitoes, a future where everyone knew their date of death, and a future where paper is no longer used and everything’s digital. Some of the ideas are realistic and could happen; others are from the deepest realms of impossible science fiction, but are no less interesting to discuss. It’s actually on it’s second season, but the first isn’t available on iTunes and I haven’t got round to listening to it yet. It also has another name; Meanwhile in the Future. The first season includes such futures as what would happen if Earth gained a second moon, or if a robotic overlord banned all human weaponry.

Rose is a very chipper host, keenly interested in her subject, and the interviewees she gets are no small bones, all being important in their fields. There is such a mix of tones and emotions at play here too, but she navigates them with serious skill. Any episode is worth listening to, but to start off I’d go for “My Everything Pal” or “Love at First Bot”.

podcast 6Podcast: Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast
Number of Episodes: 100
Release: Wednesdays, but currently on hiatus

There are so many people in this world that I’d love to sit down and have a chat with. While I still can’t really do it, someone who can is Richard Herring. His podcast (RHLSTP) is smart, irreverent, hilarious and pure bliss. His guest list is one that other interviewers can only dream of, and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting opposite him, they’re going to get the same treatment. Herring is capable of asking really important questions, getting to the heart of who someone is and what drives them, and where they think their careers are going, but mostly he just wants to make cock jokes and talk about seventies television. That’s not a complaint.

It’s currently on hold, and will be back this month, but over the last 100 episodes, guests have ranked from up-and-coming comedians like Joe Lycett, Sara Pascoe and Roisin Conaty, to really high-profile guests like Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard and Harry Shearer. While the guests are generally pulled from the world of comedy, there have also been academics (Mary Beard), TV presenters (Louis Theroux) and fellow podcasters (Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann). While a lot of it seems to be Herring asking people if they’d rather have a hand made of ham or an armpit that produced sun cream, he nonetheless always gets a great interview.

Particularly wonderful episodes include Stephen Fry (for which the podcast got noticed by the mainstream press when Fry admitted to recently attempting suicide), Armando Iannucci & Graham Linehan (if only for Linehan’s Bob Dole anecdote), Louis Theroux (which contains a lot about Jimmy Saville), and Miles Jupp (who is distraught at Herring’s obsession with Balamory). Frankly, if you’ve ever liked anyone in comedy, chances are they’re in here somewhere.

While I’m a bit too young to have been able to appreciate Richard Herring the first time round – indeed, I didn’t know he had a lot of success in the nineties until I started listening to this – it’s clear that the rest of the comedy industry worships him and he seems to be on good terms with all his guests. They’re really good fun, but if you’re listening in public, be prepared to get some odd looks.

podcast 7Podcast: Serial
Number of Episodes: 20+

If there’s ever been a podcast that changed the nature of the genre and showed people what it was really capable of, it’s Serial. Everyone else has already talked about how wonderful this is, but in case you’ve been living under a rock with limited Internet access, here’s what you need to know.

Serial is the brainchild of Sarah Koenig, a journalist and producer who was asked to look into the case of Adnan Syed. He was arrested in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, a student in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed pleaded his innocence, but was given a life sentence in 2000. He is, as expected from this verdict, still in prison. Koenig looks into the case and begins to see that things aren’t as simple as they seem, so week by week goes back and visits the locations, speaks to the people who were involved at the time (although she wonders how much anyone can remember after 15 years) and talks directly to Syed himself. Koenig fishes up evidence, theories, information that was missed or ignored during the trial, and tries to piece together what really happened.

It’s hugely compelling, and I’ve already forced so many of my friends to listen to it. Not one of them was disappointed. It isn’t a spoiler at this point to say that when the series finishes, Koenig doesn’t give us an answer. She has presented to us all the evidence, and we can make up our own minds. The thing that makes this particularly compelling? In my social circle, we can’t agree on whether Syed was innocent or guilty. With our own backgrounds and ideas, we’ve chosen our own answers, for better or worse.

There is a second series, but it’s about a completely unrelated story, and while I haven’t listened to it, everyone I know who has says that it doesn’t compare at all to the first. So, please do listen to the first series of this, but then don’t feel an obligation to continue. It’s simply incredible listening.

podcast 8Podcast: No Such Thing As A Fish
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Friday

One of the greatest shows on TV is QI, simple as that. John Lloyd, the brains behind it (and, frankly, every excellent British comedy show of the last forty years) has declared it more a way of life than a show, and so it has expanded in many directions, including books, websites and clubs. A podcast was a logical step. Hosted by four of the QI researchers (the “elves”) – Dan, Anna, Andy and James – every week they take a bizarre fact that they’ve discovered and for about thirty to forty-five minutes discuss them and any other facts they’ve found related to each core fact. Prone to tangents and base humour when the opportunity arises, this is nonetheless one of the smartest and funniest podcasts ever.

The hosts have great chemistry, and while Anna and James are primarily researchers, Andy is an improv comic, and host Dan is a stand-up. They’re all blisteringly intelligent though, and can dredge up facts off hand about any topic, no matter how far from the original point they go. They also occasionally record the shows in front of a live audience (and I can tell you first hand, they are hugely entertaining evenings, having been to one myself) and now have their own TV show, No Such Thing As The News, which is in the same format, but with a more topical edge.

With over 100 episodes now, and that’s without including the special short episodes they did with information about each country taking part in the 2014 World Cup, there’s plenty to be getting on with here. They also occasionally turn up with a special guest, including Victoria Coren Mitchell, Simon Rich or John Lloyd himself. It’s the best way to learn without realising you’re learning.

More podcasts next month!

“Londoners” by Craig Taylor (2011)

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londoners

Calling at all stations…

I am not a Londoner, although I did live there for two years during my university days. I’ve always been quite sad that I could never consider myself a Londoner properly. I mean, I had an Oyster card, I voted in the 2008 mayoral election, I’m rude to practically everyone I meet – everything. However, despite not being a Londoner, I have been having a love affair with the city for practically all of my life. I’m not well travelled but I don’t need to be to know that London is the greatest city on the planet – for me, at least. Two thousand years of history smashed together. The fact that you can see the Shard (built 2012) and the Tower of London (built 1078) at the same time is all it needs for one to understand that this is no ordinary city.

But what is a city without its people? In this book, Canadian Craig Taylor – now a Londoner himself – interviews a whole collection of people who live, work or play in the city, throwing new light onto the place. The people come from all backgrounds and all walks of life. Some of them were born there, some parachuted in for work, or love, and some arrived in the back of a lorry seeking streets paved with gold.

Londoners (subtitle: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It) really is magical in that it opens your eyes to the myriad of people who live in London and call it home. This is not a travel guide – parts of this are going to do anything but entice you to the city – but it is merely the stories of the people who allow the city to be what it is, and each one of them is fascinating, taking a new angle and allowing you to see a different part of the city, maybe even one who hadn’t even considered.

There’s everything in here. There’s the American tourist who talks of the immense history and the museums loaded with treasures. There’s the angler who discusses the fish population in the Thames. There’s the policeman who’s had a gun pulled on him, and the student who once got stopped and searched twice in one day as a terrorist suspect. There’s a woman who forages in skips and a hedge fund manager with an office in Berkeley Square.

There’s an artist who collected hair from underground stations, a commuter who talks about the angst involved in train travel, the traders in Spitalfields market, a singer who is haunted by the Tate Modern and a gay man who cruises public toilets for sex. London is a beautiful tapestry of individuals and this book merely scratches the surface, each story focussing on a different aspect of the place, from Canary Wharf to the Tube (one particularly interesting interview is with the woman who did the announcements for the Underground.)

Before this book, I didn’t know that fish has been sold at Billingsgate since the Roman days or that there is a surprising number of beehives on flat roofs across the city. The people have their quirks, but I don’t think there’s one here I wouldn’t like to hear more from. You cannot get a comprehensive version of the city from this book however, as everyone has their own view, some good, some bad.

But, when all is said and done, the book gives you the distinct impression that people think that London is a smelly, dirty, overcrowded, unfriendly shithole. But it is their smelly, dirty, overcrowded, unfriendly shithole. They wouldn’t change it for the world.

And neither would I.