Sunny Brain, Rainy Brain – the science of optimism

“The core components of optimism surprisingly don’t really have too much to do with positive thinking at all. One of the major components actually is a sense of control; what psychologists have found is that optimists are people who have a sense that they’re in control of their own destiny [...] there are lots of experiments demonstrating that that’s one of the reasons why optimism is so beneficial, and in fact even some experiments have shown that sometimes that sense of control is an illusion, but nevertheless, even though it’s an illusion, it still has a bit of a benefit.”

Rainy Brain Sunny Brain coverElaine Fox is professor of cognitive and affective psychology at the University of Oxford. In this interview (recorded in summer 2012, when Elaine was still at the University of Essex) she talks about her book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism, in which she explores such questions as: how does having an optimistic or a pessimistic outlook affect the successes and failures in our lives? How do small biases to look on the bright or the dark side become confirmed, even ingrained? What part do genes play in all this and how do they interact with environmental factors? And if we find ourselves on the pessimistic part of the spectrum, how can we nudge ourselves in a more positive direction?

Continue Reading · 8 June, 2014 · podcasts, science and philosophy

Uncivil War: the Israel-Palestinian Conflict and the Jewish Community


Keth Kahn-Harris Uncivil War“For Jews, Israel goes very close to the heart, whether you’re a Jewish supporter of Israel or you’re a Jewish critic of Israel and of Zionism, it’s very hard to be indifferent about it. In fact, it would be very odd if most Jews were indifferent about Israel because this is the major project of the modern Jewish people. [...] The author Joel Schalit says in his book Israel vs. Utopia that it isn’t just an issue for Israel and the Palestinians; it’s really become the world’s conflict. Everyone seems to have a stake in it, whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever. It’s something that it’s very difficult generally to be indifferent about, which has its positives and negatives, but I think it’s mainly negatives…”

This podcast features an interview with sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris about his new book, Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community. This book sets out not only to examine the heated, often vitriolic, even poisonous nature of that debate and explore how it has come about, it also aims to make its own contribution to improving the debate. As you’ll hear in this interview, Keith and his wife experimented with commensality – the practice of eating together – to see what that might achieve when members of the UK’s Jewish community with widely differing views sat down together.

You can find out more about the book at David Paul Books and you can read more about Keith and his work at his own website.

Continue Reading · 1 May, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts, religion and belief

Anton Chekhov: About Love and other stories (an Oxford World’s Classics audio guide)

Chekhov: About Love cover

Without quite planning it, Podularity seems to have been having a bit of a Russian season of late, so I thought it would be worth re-presenting this audio guide which OUP commissioned me to produce a couple of years ago with Rosamund Bartlett, translator of Chekhov’s short stories (and also Anna Karenina (forthcoming, 2014)). Here’s a link to all the OWC audio guides.

“Seventeen peerless examples of how much life you can put into a few pages of fiction if you have Chekhov’s economical mind, his eyes and ears, his feel for comedy and his sense of humanity. Chekhov is better known for his plays. But these are small masterpieces of their own, in a revelatory new translation.”

- The Economist

Click on the links below to hear Rosamund Bartlett, who edited and translated the stories in the collection, About Love, introduce Chekhov and his work and read from her translations.

Who was Anton Chekhov?

  • Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) came from an unlikely background for a future literary celebrity. Unlike most of his fellow writers, he wasn’t from an aristocratic family but a conservative, merchant one. Click here to hear more about his early years. [2:18]
  • In 1879 Chekhov moved to Moscow, thereby taking the first step to his literary and medical career. Click here to find out why he himself felt that he had entered the literary world by the back door. [2:29]
  • A “period of small deeds”: click here to find out more about how the politically reactionary climate of his times was better suited to the short story form than sweeping novels. Rosamund Bartlett also discusses the effect Chekhov’s declining health had on his life. [3:16]

Writing in a minor key

  • Chekhov’s early readers in both Russian and English were uncertain what to make of his stories: they didn’t have regular beginnings or endings and they also lacked conventional heroes. As Rosamund Bartlett explains here, modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf were among the first to appreciate what an innovative writer Chekhov really was. [5:06]
  • How hard is it to capture the elegiac, musical quality of Chekhov’s prose in English? Here Rosamund Bartlett describes what she was trying to achieve as a translator. [5:29]
  • The stories in the collection About Love extend from early works written in his mid-twenties to the majestic story “The Bishop”, which dates from right at the end of Chekhov’s career. Click here to hear how Rosamund Bartlett made her selection from over 600 stories. [3:49]

Sampling the stories

  • “Lady with a Little Dog” is probably Chekhov’s most famous story. Click here for an introduction to it and to hear an extract. [4:25]
  • “Gooseberries” forms part of a trilogy of stories that Chekhov wrote in the late 1890s. Click here to listen to an extract. [3:24]
Continue Reading · 8 April, 2014 · literature, podcasts

Conversations with Translators (I): Oliver Ready on Crime and Punishment

I visited Oliver Ready recently at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where he is a research fellow in Russian society and culture, to hear about his five-year engagement with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics, 2014): what persuaded him to take the project on? how did he limber up for it? and why – unusually – […]

Continue Reading · 7 April, 2014 · language, literature, podcasts, translation

Rebecca Mead on The Road to Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead is an English-born, Brooklyn-based, New Yorker staff writer. I met her recently when she visited Toppings bookshop in Bath to talk about her new book The Road to Middlemarch. Rebecca’s book explores her fascination with George Eliot’s great novel, which started when she first encountered it at the age of seventeen, and has […]

Continue Reading · 4 April, 2014 · biography and memoir, literature, podcasts

Catriona Kelly St Petersburg interview – part II

I don’t want to normalize it completely, but I think Britain has many of the same problems as Russia actually: mass alcoholism – there’s plenty of that – a governing elite that doesn’t really give a toss for anybody, doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of what’s going on, what happens when you administer […]

Continue Reading · 3 April, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts

Catriona Kelly on shadows of St Petersburg’s past

The present and the past are intertwined and it doesn’t matter if what people remember about the past isn’t true – it’s got significance for them now. I’m going between lots of different layers, because that’s what people do in their conversation. My guest in this programme is Catriona Kelly, who is Professor of Russian […]

Continue Reading · 21 March, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts

Historical novelist Maria McCann on Ace, King, Knave

[An] exuberant revivification of grave robbers and gamblers, hucksters and whores in 18th-century London: like Hogarth sprung to life. – Hilary Mantel, Books of the Year 2013, Observer This is my second interview with Maria McCann – I first interviewed her back in 2010 about her previous novel, The Wilding, which was longlisted for the […]

Continue Reading · 16 February, 2014 · historical fiction, literature, podcasts

Jon Ronson on The Psychopath Test

Early on in his book The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson writes: I’d never really thought much about psychopaths before that moment and I wondered if I should try and meet some. It seemed extraordinary that there were people out there whose neurological condition, according to James’s story, made them so terrifying, like a wholly malevolent space […]

Continue Reading · 15 February, 2014 · medicine, podcasts, science and philosophy

Inside Writing: The Faber Academy podcast (1)

We recorded the first Faber Academy podcast last autumn. The aim is very simple: to bring together two writers (or a writer and editor) and get them to discuss a theme or a skill likely to be of interest to other writers. The guests on each programme select a text to focus the discussion and […]

Continue Reading · 11 February, 2014 · literature, podcasts

On the siege of Leningrad

My guest in this podcast is Anna Reid, a historian of Russia and author of Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege 1941-4, the first book in English to be devoted to the siege since 1969. The siege by the German army lasted 900 days and led to the deaths of three quarters of a […]

Continue Reading · 31 January, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts

German novelist Eugen Ruge on ‘In Times of Fading Light’

In Times of Fading Light is Eugen Ruge‘s debut novel, a bestseller in Germany, and the winner of the 2011 German Book prize, awarded to the best German-language novel of the year. A multi-generational story spanning well over half a century (and drawing to a certain extent on Ruge’s own family history), it charts the […]

Continue Reading · 26 January, 2014 · historical fiction, literature, podcasts

Excavating the mummy’s curse

Roger Luckhurst‘s 2012 book, The Mummy’s Curse, is much more than just an opportunity to revisit the familiar story of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the winter of 1922 and the death soon after of his patron Lord Carnarvon in circumstances ascribed to the eponymous curse. Roger’s real interest is in finding out […]

Continue Reading · 26 January, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts, supernatural