Let’s start with podcasts, because those are what I have got most of to recommend.
This American Life episodes 582 When the Beasts Come Marching In and 743 Don’t You Be My Neighbour. TAL episodes are long and it’s occasionally unappealing to commit unless you know it’s going to be a humdinger.
You’re Dead To Me on BBC Sounds. I don’t tend to get on with You’re Dead to Me very well. I find the 1 Historian/1 Comedian format a little forced, but the episode about Haiti is really good.
Also on BBC Sounds, Pieces of Britney narrated by Pandora Sykes, who has got such a good voice but maybe I only think that because she sounds exactly like my editor at T2. I’m not the dramatised bits of Pieces of Britney work, but it’s certainly very thoroughly researched.
The Daily 2July The Debate Over Critical Race Theory. I am fascinated by the culture wars and Critical Race Theory is pretty central to it. It’s an academic idea that is bandied about a lot but I don’t think many people know exactly what it is – neither did I, (not really), until I listened to this.
Honestly, with Bari Weiss. Weiss is a very interesting character, who left the New York Times, basically due to fall-out from the culture war. Honestly is a kind of WTF response to her experience and the experience of others who have been, for want of a better word “cancelled”. The episode about Testosterone is good.
You’re Wrong About re-visits issues the hosts feel that people are, well, wrong about. The 7 June episode Cancel Culture and the 13 September episode The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case are both worth a listen.
The Rest is History can sometimes be a little rambling but some episodes work really well. The recent episode with William Dalrymple about the East India Company was fun, if only because Dalrymple talks nonstop for 1 hour and the hosts Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland make lots of jokes about it. Their 3-episode mini-series on statues in London is also informative and vaguely shaming as I just don’t know who any of those people are. Except Nelson. Wait, is it Nelson?! Yes, it’s Nelson. Sorry… I never have the courage of my convictions about these things.
I absolutely loved every second of A Thorough Examination with Dr Chris and Xand/Addicted to Food and it’s not just because Xand is my friend. Xand is a bit overweight, (handy for friends who find it tricky to tell him apart from Chris), and in particular eats quite a lot of what we might term “junk food”. This looks into the exact reasons why and further thinks about what can be done in practical terms about changing diet, which as we all know is the MF hardest thing to do, after giving up alcohol. There are some major surprises along the way that not even I knew about, and I’ve known these two for 20 years.
I had a spell of acute anxiety over the summer, (unrelated to this blog), and it was really terrible at times. Having a podcast in my ear was one way of keeping the catastrophising-anxiety-nightmare voices out of my head and when I was too paralysed with it all to do anything else, I lay on the sofa and listened to The Anxiety Coaches Podcast. I found the hosts’ voice incredibly soothing and she starts each episode with “Aloha,” which for some reason made me feel like all was not completely lost.
Unrelated to this, regular readers will know that an unlikely area of more-than-usual interest I have is Osama bin Laden. Cofer Black, (this really is his name), former Director of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Centre just before 9/11 and was very worried that bin Laden was going to do something extreme. A very gruff and no-nonsense kind of guy, and also very funny when he warms up, this rare interview with Spycast is terrific and, for a former spy, Black is quite indiscreet.
The Unexpected Joy of being Sober by Catherine Gray is a book I didn’t read for a long time because I thought it would be a bit wussy. It totally isn’t! It really ought to be titled “If I Can Get Sober, Anyone Can” because the author hit it hard and talks about it all in a completely brutal and unvarnished way, which as I’m sure you get by now, is the only way I think it’s worth talking about anything.
The book makes my drinking habits, even at their worst, look like playtime, which brought me great comfort. The book is generally incredibly empathetic, informative and instructive. My personal goal is not to be tee-total but neither is it for alcohol to be a default, which it had become, particularly over lockdown. The first week I cut right back on drinking, (about six weeks ago), required a lot of willpower but since then I no longer reach 6pm and get the WINE awooga scream in my head. I’m also now able to drink a glass of wine with dinner occasionally and put the cork back in the bottle and put the bottle away. I’ve got to say, it’s a relief. I never thought I would be rid of the WINE awooga. It may yet come back of course, because the problem with alcohol is that it is really fucking addictive.
And that’s actually it for books. I have attempted half a dozen others but none of them stuck and damning things with faint praise is so rude. I really wish I liked genre fiction – particularly psychological thrillers or crime procedurals – because then I could always have a book on the go. But I don’t like genre fiction. I was appalled by the one Lee Child that I read.
I once said to my Dad, who reads a lot of Lee Child for such an educated man, “Dad this is awful crap,” and he said, “Ha ha ha! Of course it is. But you’re not really the demographic.” Anything where someone’s got a secret or who killed Daisy? or the thing we did when we were 18 is coming back to haunt us or what’s in that creepy house or she’s got an evil plan or he’s got an evil plan, or this woman wants to steal your husband/life/baby… no thanks. It’s such a shame, though, because there is so much of it.
TV AND FILMS
White Lotus, this is Sky Atlantic only, which is a massive bore for anyone who doesn’t have the channel but I’m sure it will be on Netflix soon enough, look out for it, it’s a treat.
Back to Life. You may have missed this one, it stars Daisy Haggard who comes back to a small seaside town after spending 18 years in prison. It’s got a few holes in it, but otherwise it is very good, if a little triggering as obviously public shame is everyone’s no.1 horror. I did wonder, as I was watching it, if the main character’s shame was intended to be a metaphor for the deep shame that most women feel, even if they haven’t actually done anything wrong.
Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings starts off as a sort of caper movie with Simu Liu and Awkwafina buddying around, then it turns into this completely crazy adventure thing featuring dragons and also Sir Ben Kingsley as a lost Brummie jester. It was fabulous and I’m really not into the Marvel Universe thing.
Now for the most important bit: HOW ABOUT YOU?! Please let us know what you have been reading, watching and listening to, so that we may all be inspired. The more off the beaten track or niche the better.
Thanks for all the recommendations, Esther. I too find podcasts very soothing and helpful to keep the anxiety under control – and it is of course great to be entertained when performing boring household chores!
My top TV tip is Master of None on Netflix. Completely different to the previous two (absolutely brilliant) series as, post-me too, Aziz Ansari, the show’s writer and creator, is now mostly behind the camera. It is soooooo good and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Particularly if, like me, you enjoy scenes featuring one person and no dialogue – sounds boring but actually so interesting and thought provoking. I recommend all three series, but this new one is stand alone and you don’t need to watch the previous two.
In wine news; I had a dry first six months of 2021 – quite a feat as I was a habitual (at least) two glasses of wine per evening, with more at weekends. It was easier than it sounds due to lockdown and no socialising. I have had a few celebratory, sociable drinks here and there over the summer but have stopped drinking at home (my husband and grown up children drink at home). So boring to report, but I feel so much better. Much less anxious and emotional. But a tiny bit smug and boring – it’s a trade off.
I just read No One Is Talking About This, new book by Patricia Lockwood who writes very funny and clever book reviews for the LRB and it is a very funny and clever novel type thing about social media anxiety and how everyone has gone batshit crazy/has ‘a bad case of internet worms’. Then I read her first, Priestdaddy, which is an absolutely hilarious memoir of her upbringing with her former rock guitarist catholic priest father. She is great. Also I picked up Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination in a charity shop, which is Helen Fielding doing a spy novel after Bridget Jones. I expect you’ve probably all read it already but it is diverting and jolly and if you are into OBL you will enjoy it.
Anne these are terrific recommendations! Thank you I will have a look at both
Priestdaddy is an amazing book!
I have a great success rate with books recommended here. Recent books I enjoyed:
Sorrow and bliss
Very keen on a podcast to do the ironing to, but never take the time to find something new before I start, so these recs will be very handy, thank you. God, I was SO TRAUMATISED by the one Lee Child I read. Still returns to me in the middle if the night. Horrible. I do read genre fiction, but it’s proper old-fashioned green Penguin paperback crime of a very gentlemanly nature; no gore and little to give even me, the great wuss, nightmares. The British Library crime fiction series had some gems if you can’t be arsed to trawl through second-hand bookshops for tatty Penguins. I find them very soothing.
My drinking habits are currently disgraceful but enjoyable which means we are peaking towards a sharp corrective. Pleasingly, being antisocial and with fewer and fewer relatives, Christmas overindulgence is almost non-existent so it’s easy to cut down in the run-up to it, when I used to think urgh, can’t do dry November or I’ll be hopeless all December. I find it much easier not to drink in winter than in summer oddly. Sunshine and rosé. Clichés are always founded in fact.
Thank you! This list is exactly what I need. I have missed you and your blog over the summer. I really enjoyed Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld for a bit of “what if”. It’s not perfect but it’s an entertaining read. I loved The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. I also loved the Dr Chris and Xand blog. It provided the science to support what I’ve thought for ages without understanding why.
Susan Clifford says
I loved White Lotus and Back to Life. I’ve also recently really enjoyed Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet but it’s been around a while so you’ve probably seen it. The first episode didn’t grab me and I found I was looking for slips in her US a accent. It also had a lot of characters to get to grips with but it got better and better.
I’ve just read Bryony Gordon’s Glorious Rock Bottom which similarly made my drinking look restrained, however it has made me think about how habitual my drinking is, so I have cut down – not having anything in the week at all now which is a massive change for me. It’s a great book, she is so brutally honest and open. Now reading American Dirt which is gripping.
I don’t know where to start with podcasts so thank you.
Sorry about the anxiety. Probably not relevant but both my sister and I have terrible reactions to synthetic progesterone (in all birth control). As in breakdowns / panic attacks. Just don’t think it’s talked about enough and in case there’s a pattern there.
Books – I’m obsessed with the “body electric”. Recent R4 programme on it and lots of research. Also bought Crying in H Mart but yet to read.
Lovely to have you back!
I recently read The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, lent to me by a writer friend. It’s perfect if you don’t want to read any more about being a mother/wife/psycho woman/woman having a baby/young woman living in London/woman wanting a baby etc etc. I’m not saying those subjects aren’t interesting or important but it feels like a LOT of new books are along those lines right now and if you need an interlude then this is perfect. Set in the 1970s in the Caribbean, it’s written mainly from a local man’s point of view, and tells the story of a mermaid caught by American tourists. She’s not your average mermaid, no long blond hair or seashell bikini. Was refreshingly different. I also loved Back to Life. She is the same age as me so I thought her references to before she went to prison about ‘wanting to be Jools Oliver’ etc were spot on lol.
Oh Esther! How did I not know about Spycast!? Thank you. It’s absolutely up my alley and can feel a new obsession coming on.
I also had a horrible period of anxiety this summer and podcasts and audiobooks really saved the day. x
I really like “You’re wrong about” podcast – some are unavoidably better than others but I found the Stepford Wives one particularly interesting. The spin off from that is “Maintenance Phase” which focusses mainly on diets and diet culture which is also pretty fascinating (if that’s your thing!). Recently I’ve been listening to the Wondery British Scandal podcasts with Alice Levine, looking at stuff like Profumo Affair, Barings bank, The Sexed up Dossier etc etc.
This is brilliant. I have listened to about half of the podcasts recommended already which means I’ll definitely listen to the others as we must be from the same podcast ilk.
The Adam Buxton ones are also good. Episodes with Louis Theroux and Joe Cornish make me laugh a lot – and I have never even watched one episode of the Adam and Joe Show.
I am also on a new drinking journey/phase, which was to reduce the routine weekend drinking throughout September. Only drinking on an occasion, dinner out, marking an anniversary etc. I think (hope) I have reset my relationship with booze a little. It was taking up far too much of my brain, with the ‘shall I?’, ‘why did I??’ and plays havoc with my anxiety which has been a little worse lately.
Two tips on this – not that anyone asked but anyway:
Download the Drinkaware App, you log drink free days or what you had and gives you the number of units and calories – the calories are a fucking shocker and embarrassingly I think this motivated me the most to reduce the booze
Listen to anything by Annie Grace who hosts the This Naked Mind podcast
Thanks Gemma this is all very useful to have. Yes I do not have the mental space for any more anxiety, shame or paranoia, all of which alcohol delivers so effortlessly
Ted Lasso has been an absolute joy for me recently. And Jason Sudeikis is just 😍
These are all so good. I have been reading some Laurie Colwin – Home Cooking, which I expect you may already know as it’s a quite Nora Ephron-esque (Recipe Rifle -esque for that matter) book of recipes woven in with personal observations, but it was new to me and I haven’t cooked any of the recipes but I’m enjoying the essays that go with them. It’s full of things like “this will feed 150 people, some of whom are children” and, of dinner parties, “back and forth you go like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.” I also read one of her novels, Happy All the Time, which is quite a standard rom-com, but the writing is witty and it is full of good lifestyle and food stuff from New York in the 70s. I also read an Alice Thomas Ellis, Unexplained Laughter. Reasonably plot-less, 2 journalists who don’t get on go on holiday to a cottage in Wales, but sharp and funny writing with unlikeable characters if you like that kind of thing, and just a bit of a different feel to anything I’ve currently been reading. I can’t read genre stuff either, it is a bit of a pain, but I do quite like old noir type things and read a good one recently that was featured on the Backlisted podcast, In a Lonely Place, which is more from the Columbo, there’s no mystery here, but let’s watch how it plays out, point of view. I also read Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe, about a young student who ends up working on the set of Billy Wilder’s final film one summer in Greece. The real behind the scenes anecdotes woven in and the quite affecting personal background on BW made it worthwhile and it’s an easy read if you’re having trouble concentrating. I’ve just started Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, a memoir of a fraught mother-daughter relationship, taking place in Manhattan and enjoying that so far. Almost forgot, continuing on a New York theme, the Beastie Boys autobiography on audiobook is just brilliant, and completely transporting. Sorry you’ve been struggling with anxiety, it’s so debilitating and just the supreme worst. (I know a little something about it which is perhaps partly why I have so many suggestions set on holiday or in Manhattan 40 years ago) Hope you’re having a better time now.
Cindy you are always a mine of cultural suggestions. I like the sound of Unexplained Laughter
So happy with these podcast recommendations, most of those are already in my rotation so I’m sure I’ll enjoy the others.
Have you tried ‘Maintenance Phase’? It’s by the same guy who presents ‘You’re Wrong About’ and Aubrey Gordon, it’s all about de-bunking the diet culture/health-wellness industry. Aside from just generally being interesting, it’s a tonic for the mild eating disorders that I think everyone is always on the brink of (I’m half joking, but disordered eating is apparently a big phenomenon now).
Thanks for the recs!
So good to have you back, Esther. Thank you for the podcast recommendations – I, too, find they blank out anxious & negative thoughts.
Books-wise I’m halfway through Paul Auster’s 4321 (not sure how this escaped my radar as it was nominated for 2017 Booker prize) but am thoroughly enjoying it so far.
I was so happy to see a new Spike post this morning! So much of this resonates with me. I’m trying to now have at least three dry nights per week. I like to drink a glass of white wine while I’m cooking. It takes me three nights to finish one bottle which I don’t think is that bad. But the problem is I always have a bottle going. So now I’m trying to NOT open a bottle on Sunday – Wednesday.
I spent the summer watching a six season series called The Americans. I don’t know how I missed this amazing show when it was on the air. Set in the early 80s, it’s about Russian spies posing as a typical American family. So well acted and written. I went through withdrawal after it was over!
I used to be a constant reader but my phone has ruined my attention span. I still love reading but I have to put my phone in the other room. It’s pathetic. My favorite book I read this summer was The Paper Palace. I am happily married but I enjoy reading about marital infidelity. I guess it’s the illicit thrill?
Anyway this is a great book! I highly recommend it.
Esther I feel the same about genre reading. Chick lit, mysteries etc I just can’t get into it. It’s the same with most TV shows and movies. How can there be so many shows available that I have absolutely no interest in? I wish I could get into all the Scandinavian murder shows but they don’t do it for me either.
I’m going to be making a list of all the wonderful reccs on this page, so many good ones. Thanks!
Oh my god Scandinavian murder shows are so boring. And can I just say I really like all the Scandinavians I have met
Yes sleep inducing!
You gotta read Sorrow and Bliss, like everyone else.
The cleaner – Greg Davies is actually very calming despite the grizzly subject
I almost exclusively watch Korean tv nowadays, and cannot recommend it highly enough for sheer escapism. Defo best for those who like genre fiction though, as that is basically what it is (although it mixes genres very liberally). If anyone wants to dip their toe I’d suggest It’s Okay not to be Okay (gorgeously shot, amazing clothes, mental health nurse who is carer for his autistic brother meets children’s author with BPD and then there is HIGH DRAMA); Strong Girl Bong Soon (girl cursed with superhuman strength is hired as playboy’s bodyguard, it is utterly bonkers and yet hilarious and sweet) and Hospital Playlist (sort of Grey’s Anatomy but just nicer and less angsty and like getting a warm hug at the end of a shitty day). And of course Crash Landing On You (South Korean high powered business woman has paragliding accident and ends up in North Korea, under the wing of upright NK soldier who tries to sneak her back over the border, and then there are capers and blubby star-crossed romance). Tis awesome. And the production values are really top notch. Plus subtitles, so basically reading, and foreign language, so kind of highbrow even if it is actually very expensive Mills and Boon crossed with Lee Child and Stephen King.
Cindy Fried says
Yes to Rest is History, British Scandal and Maintenance Phase (check out their Snake Oil and Ophra’s Wagon of Fat). I love going for a walk while listening to a podcast, and couldn’t get to sleep without one in my ears so there is no room for middle of the night heebijeebies.
Also good is Shedunnit – mostly about Golden Age detective fiction and the crimes that were the basis for it.
Mare of Easttown was SO good. White Lotus was a treat. I don’t get Sky but Sky Atlantic is on NowTV which only costs a couple of coffees per month and has a lot of great stuff (Succession new series in October for example).
Books – just finished Prep, Sittenfeld’s debut- old but so good, particularly if you like cringing at entitlement and love a campus novel.
Really missed you over the summer, and all the Spikers too. With all these reccs, let autumn commence!
I am a super fan of “The Neighborhood Listen” podcast. Describing it doesn’t do it justice; it makes me cry with laughter and everyone I’ve told about it resists it at first and then falls in love with it. Enjoy!
I think if you want plotless novels can i shout loudly for Anglea Thirkell. She’s a forgotten writer who wrote placid, witty novels about life in fictionalised countryiside before and during WW2. Nothing happens much, but they are so soothing and gorgeously desciptive and nuanced about people in general. (she also writes womens issues well, although they are mostly about corraling your ‘staff’).
The Cleaner is also great on BBC and only half an hour. Currenlty being made to watch that Whaling thing on BBC with my BF (it’s great, but really cold looking and the seal clubbing made me have nightmares).
Podcasts, if youre not listenting to Fi and Jane, please do. and if youre a late millenial who obsessed over the OC the episode by episode podcast by Summer and Julie Cooper is great brain melt. So many of my favourite podcasts have ended in the last year so thanks for all the recs.
I’m so happy that you’re back (yes, I know you never went away, silly mailing lists!) but I love these little snippets in my inbox. Trying to listen to more podcasts but when I’m walking I often have one or more small children waffling on so trying to cutdown on my scrolling time and listen to something useful instead.
I must say, I do love a bit of Jack Reacher. I know it’s formulaic and obvious but I find the annual release acts like a little autumnal comfort blanket.
Of course, of course! Sorry I really shouldn’t have been so rude about it. Lee Child is a phenomenon! I am envious. How terrific to be into a series of things
Lisa Frostrup says
I have about twenty books piled up around my bed. The total standout which I literally couldn’t put down was The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. Mind-blowingly good. Read it if you haven’t already.
Ooo excellent thank you, that’s the second recommendation for this
I love podcasts and now listen to them when driving about doing errands. My children make me listen to Radio 1 when they’re in the car and I was a dedicated radio 4 listener but lately its just one radio play or naff news quiz after the other. So podcasts in the car or pottering / housework at home.
I’m a policy wonk so my podcast recs are social analysis / policy/ politics:
Royal society of arts Bridges To The Future for interesting people/ authors talking about interesting stuff
New statesman for deep geek territory
Institute for fiscal studies. Don’t be put off! Really engaging Deep dives into loads of interesting issues eg health and social care
Malcolm gladwell revisionist history
Do more good (about the charity world)
Happier with Gretchen Ruben
I don’t listen to anywhere near as many podcasts as I’d like. I just don’t make time but I should!
I recommend Ted Lasso on Apple TV
Yes it’s about football but not entirely – it’s about humans, their flaws, their vulnerabilities. their strengths, love and laughter. It never fails to make me smile. It’s brilliant!
Esther, it is bloody great to see you back. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had a bit of a time of it – anxiety is the absolute worst. Hoping to follow in some of the healthy footsteps you suggest. I really enjoyed this post.
Greetings from Washington DC, where the combination of Covid vaccines and a new president has reduced my desire to drink every day. To my mind, the very best book about alcoholism and sobriety is quite old – Drinking: A Love Story by the late Caroline Knapp. Her prose is crisp and clean and utterly without self-pity or self-justification. She illuminates what it was like to have booze completely control her life as a highly functioning alcoholic. She was a deeply addictive person with a history of eating disorders, booze and smoking (which is what got her in the end, tragically).