Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Kwasi Karteng, Nicholson Baker and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Karteng

Labour MP Tristram Hunt admires this "compelling and important history of the British empire" in the Observer, by his colleague from the opposite benches, the Tory MP for Spelthorne. It goes fiercely against the Cameronite sense of history: "Its target is those neoconservative cheerleaders of empire - Niall Ferguson, Michael Gove - who regard British colonialism as a 'good thing' and the model for a modern Pax Americana.... Instead, Ghosts of Empire marks a return to traditional, Tory scepticism shorn of ideology and purpose. There is little rhyme or rhythm to this history". In the Telegraph George Walden noted that the problem was not an imperialist central government but the free reign given to the "cranks, oddballs and romantics" who ran the empire. Sholto Byrnes, in the Independent agrees, but is less pleased with the style, calling it merely "amusing and mostly well-written".

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

"The real story here," writes James Lasdun in the Guardian, of Nicholson Baker's picaresque of comic smut, "is why the cleverly observant author of works such as The Mezzanine and Room Temperature has chosen to publish something at once so daft and so half-hearted. He calls it an 'Entertainment' but 'Wank Book' would have been more accurate." Set outside of normal spacetime, in the eponymous, fantastical sex-resort, a stroke of invention admired by Sam Lipsyte in The New York Times: "one of the loopier spots in literary memory -- Plato's Retreat by way of the Magic Mountain, or maybe the Oneida Community via Fantasy Island.... not even Mr. Roarke's paradise boasts 'pornsucker ships' (which fly over American cities and suck up the bad porn) or 'crotchal transfers'. Nor does it feature 'mastur­boats' or 'groanrooms' or a 'squat line' organized for the pleasure of female guests." In the LA Times, David L Ulin finds "an unexpected depth, a tenderness" to the novel, although "in the manner of superficial sex, [it] leaves us feeling oddly unfulfilled."

"House of Holes" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

The author of what Sukhdev Sandhu in the Guardian calls "an allusive, elusive creature - not quite memoir, fragmented social history, partial documentary", has lived in Harlem since 2004, when it was subject to gentrification: "In 1990, 672 white people lived in central Harlem; in 2008, there were 13,800. Columbia University has even sought to gobble up real estate to convert into student dormitories." In the FT, Bonnie Greer praised the book's style: "Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts marks herself out as a first-rate noticer with the gift of being able to allow us to notice things exactly when she does. Her lyrical prose flows like the human gaze: a glimpse here, a longer look there, a quick turning away when something is too contradictory, or too difficult to sort through"; Sandhu likewise compares her to Walter Benjamin, a poet of the unnoticed, working "through bricolage and delicately diaristic prose". In the Wall Street Journal, Edward Kosner is less pleased with "memoir mixed with social anthropology is at once affected and affecting", which compares unfavourably with other recent books on Harlem.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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