Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Julie Otsuka, Ahdaf Soueif, and Susannah Clapp.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Lucy Scholes, in the Independent, sees in Julie Otsuka's novel a "rhythmic, repetitive flow of collective experience, combined with the sparseness of the descriptions, [which] means her intensely lyrical prose verges on the edge of poetry". Distinctive personalities and circumstances are at the heart of her prose: "A host of individual characters and experiences crystallise as families and communities take root."

In the New York Times, Alida Becker reads Otsuka's playfully obscure representation of her characters as in fact the source of their intense feeling: "While it appears to hold the characters at a formal distance, that reticence infuses their stories with powerful emotion." For Becker, Otsuka's work is full of powerful anecdotes and cautiously inflated explorations of identity: "Otsuka's novel is filled with evocative descriptive sketches (farm women with their children sleeping 'like puppies, on wooden boards covered with hay') and hesitantly revelatory confessions (domestic servants who 'felt, for once, like ourselves when "the whole house was empty. Quiet. Ours.')..."

Michael Prodger, in theFinancial Times, notes Otsuka's earlier concern with global conflict, and sees here a more localised consciousness as horror approaches: "Her previous novel, When the Emperor was Divine, was about one Japanese-American family during the years of internment that followed Pearl Harbor. Here, her subject is the whole Japanese immigrant experience in the years that led up to the war." Ultimately, says Prodger, Otsuka seeks to accomplish too much, with pretensions to grand scale stifled by the absence of a specific, identifiable character: "This is a sad tale - unremittingly so - but because there is no single figure to stand as an emblem of the communal travails she can't interest the reader in the addictive vicissitudes of an individual life. The result is a book that aims for the epic but only reaches the intermittently affecting."

Cairo: My City, Our Revolution by Ahdaf Soueif

Tom Porteous, in the Evening Standard, sees qualities in Soueif's reporting that one also finds in Carlyle or Churchill - accounts of humanity within an ambitious but focused narrative sweep: "Ahdaf Soueif ... has produced a chronicle - heartfelt, courageous, and hopeful - of the 18 days that launched Egypt's revolution and shook the world. This short, urgent, beautifully written book, rich in texture and atmosphere, is a timely reminder of the idealism, humanism, optimism and sacrifice of those first weeks of the revolution." Porteous sees in Soueif an author given to reflection but not to empty idealising: "Cairo is a hopeful book but it's not naive. Sitting on a kerb in Tahrir Square, Soueif imagines what her beloved aunt Toufi, now dead, would make of the revolutionary scene in front of her."

In The Guardian, Yasmine El Rashidi notes the creative delays experienced by Soueif, the way she wanted her work to be realistic rather than sentimental: "[S]he begins this new book with an almost chilling admission of such: 'Many years ago I signed a contract to write a book about Cairo; my Cairo. But the years passed, and I could not write it. When I tried it read like an elegy; and I would not write an elegy for my city.'" El Rashidi observes how, amid the wealth of literature covering historical and social aspects of the uprising, Soueif adds a more personal touch: "There are many records of the Egyptian revolution, but Cairo takes us on a more intimate journey; one that goes far beyond the 18 days of Tahrir Square, to the places in her memory: her aunt's flat in Lazoghli, now the centre of the battle with state security; Maspero, where she had her first job, and now the mouthpiece of Mubarak's regime; and the many rooms and views and places that bring back memories of her mother ('I cannot tell you how many people in the Square have said to me, can you imagine if your mother were alive today? How she would have enjoyed this?')."

Louisa Young, in The Independent, highlights Soueif's fusion of the savage and the benign: "The title, My City, Our Revolution, reflects the book's dual personality. One moment we are in the Revolution, haring chronologically through a cloud of tear gas ... next we are in Soueif's heart and past: standing on a palm roof looking out over an orchard to the pyramids beyond, remembering her parents, her childhood, her own love affair with her city."

A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp

Jenny Turner, in the Guardian, emphasises the importance of biography in any estimation of Angela Carter's work: "Carter was very much part of that postwar non-posh lefty-bookshop culture - 'the children of Nescafé and the welfare state, as she once put it." Turner goes on: "And although it's not wrong to admire Carter's work for its many sophistications, it also partakes of that satirical-postcard roughness." This is not to say, though, that Turner dismisses the presentation of Clapp's memoir, noting how it is is playful yet deferential: "There's something nicely ceremonial about this little book. Its endpapers reproduce the invitation sent out to Carter's memorial gathering in Brixton - 'an onstage menagerie' featuring a parrot, a champagne glass, a zebra, drawn by Corinna Sargood, an old friend. Clapp's text is warm and loyal, funny and yet formal."

In the Independent, Paul Barker recognises the formative influence on Carter of film: "As Clapp notes, in this charming personal memoir published to mark the 20th anniversary of Carter's all-too-early death, at 51, Angela was enamoured of film. The passion was nurtured by cinema visits with her journalist father." Barker notes how Clapp's memoir resembles Carter's chosen mode of correspondence with her: "Clapp became close to Carter - who wrote a dozen or so reviews for the LRB - and is her literary executor. She builds this very short but very evocative book around postcards Carter sent her. The book reprints them; its own format is not much taller or wider than a postcard."

In the Financial Times, Emily Stokes admires the way Clapp rejects sentimental philosophising, but nonetheless makes way for genuine feeling: "Far from being a confessional memoir about friendship, this book is poised and elegant, and conspicuously slender - as if it has shed everything but its most presentable self."

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

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

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times