Longer listens: John Hodgman and the life of a tomato over the Transom

Published January 30, 2006 6:40PM (EST)

If the once-a-week offerings of "This American Life" just don't satisfy your cravings for understated, idiosyncratic radio essays, the Transom is a good place to turn for supplements. This "showcase and workshop for new public radio" features freelance work selected from open submissions by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media. The site took root in an idea from environmental writer Bill McKibben and is designed to broaden access to public radio. It includes production advice from Ira Glass himself and a handful of others, as well as raw cuts from works in progress.

The stories themselves are predictably uneven and happily unpredictable. One of the more interesting is this recording (41:54, MP3) of the 29th edition of the "Little Gray Book Lectures," co-produced by John Hodgman, a frequent contributor to "This American Life" and the author of the genuinely hilarious "Areas of My Expertise." The Little Gray Book is a series of monthly readings hosted by Hodgman and friends (usually at the Galapagos bar in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y.). At each lecture, a handful of "experts" -- writers, singers and other artists -- speak briefly on a single instructive theme such as "How to Spell Several Common Words," "How to Generate a Winning Character" or "How to Negotiate All Kinds of Deals and Contracts." Lecture No. 29, "How to Communicate Without the Aid of Wires," was recorded in Philadelphia and features Paul Tough on his father's attempt to reach aliens via the Internet; Starlie Kline on a ghost named Walter who haunts a Ramada Inn in Fond du Lac, Wis.; and Hodgman talking to audience members via walkie-talkie and reminiscing about random bits of AM radio that could be heard on a stretch of interstate in western Massachusetts. Chuck Klosterman, for what it's worth, called Little Gray Book the "single most interesting literary event" he's ever experienced.

Another of the Transom's better pieces is Alwine van Heemstra's "The Tomato and the Big Apple" (28:45, MP3). Heemstra follows a tomato from a farm in Ruskin, Fla., to the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, to Piccolo Angelo restaurant in the West Village and back around again through New York City's sewage system to the biosolids that the city sells as fertilizer to vegetable farmers.

-- Ira Boudway

By Salon Staff

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