Will Hodgkinson's memoir features a mid-life conversion from journalist to yogi. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 10 July

The critics’ verdicts on Linda Grant, Will Hodgkinson and Helen McCarthy.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant

Linda Grant’s second novel Upstairs at the Party is a retrospective grounded in the memories of protagonist Adele, studying at the University of York, which captures the life of a student in the 1970s when university grants meant that students were “suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings” and radicalism was rife.

The events of a 20th birthday party are the catalyst for Adele’s reminisces, yet the Independent’s Lucy Scholes wishes that the novel had stayed at uni a little longer, writing that “once we leave them behind the narrative flounders. Evie’s story is rambling and Adele’s pursuit of it a matter of unconvincingly tying up loose ends.” Similarly, according to the Financial Times’ Peter Aspden it is hard to believe that the events narrated in the first part of the book have such lingering effect ... The answer to the riddle of what-really-happened-on-that-fateful-night is anticlimactic too. It is hardly the stuff of a lifetime of pondering.” However the ambiguities of the narrative, in part due to the hazy nature of Adele’s memory as she pieces together the past, is seen by the Telegraph as a virtue. Lucy Daniel writes, With its hindsight about tragic events and paths not taken, the novel has similarities to Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker winnerThe Sense of an Ending, has a similar insistence on reshaping the past, how information that wasn’t available first time round could have changed the entire story.”

The connection to Barnes’ best seller is trumped by comparisons to Brideshead Revisited. Scholes states that “Grant’s vision is clearly that of a Brideshead for a different generation ... but it lacks the sincere sense of loss that haunts Waugh’s classic.” Moreover, Aspden describes the androgynous Stevie and Evie as “two Sebastian Flytes in Ziggy Stardust apparel” but adds that unlike the reader’s sympathetic response to Brideshead Revisited, “we don’t actually fall under the spell of Evie and Stevie early in the novel, so it is hard to believe that they continue to play such a central role in so many lives.” Despite mixed feelings on the narrative structure, Grant’s cynical yet funny Upstairs at the Party cloaks the campus novel with melancholy; a theme that is undeniably worthy of Charles Ryder.

The House is Full of Yogis by Will Hodgkinson

In this memoir the Times’ rock and pop critic Will Hodgkinson recounts his parents’ mid-life transformation from south-west London medical correspondent and tabloid journalist to a meditative yogi and TV feminist. While the elder brother Tom survives the transition relatively unphased, Will’s childhood, as the book’s subtitle implies, is “Turned Upside Down” by the social and emotional difficulties of having a father dressed in white pyjamas and his parents’ sex lives discussed on TV.

The Sunday Times’ Helen Davies praises Hodgkinson as “a gifted storyteller” who turns his already colourful core material into a “howlingly entertaining memoir that is raw, affectionate and, unbelievably, true.” Through Hodgkinson’s father’s near death experience, his mother’s book, Sex Is Not Compulsory, and declarations of his own young mediocrity, Davies maintains that “Underneath the dysfunction ... there is a real tenderness.” Equally enthusiastically, the Telegraph’s Mick Brown’s praises Hodgkinson’s “touching account” as a “sweet, quirkish gem of a memoir.” Despite the ample possibility for easy laughs, “Hodgkinson paints a deeply loving portrait of his father.” For both Brown and Davies, the comedy is affectionate rather than disdainful. 

However, where some see tenderness, others see tragedy. While Brown feels “a particular twinge of sympathy for Hodgkinson”, The Times’ Melanie Reid sees “a deep ambivalence at the heart of this charming, entertaining book”, where “what emerges is often more sad than funny”. Despite acknowledging the book to be “charming, entertaining”, Reid suspects the “contrived” cartoonish comedy to be “a defense mechanism” to the point of questioning the very motives of the memoir: “Isn’t every memoir, to some extent, either a conscious or unconscious act of revenge on one’s parents?” For Ben East of the Observer, the fault lies in the structure: “The book ends up being little more than a series of well-told family anecdotes and snapshots of awkward encounters with girls.”

Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat by Helen McCarthy

Until 1946 women were not allowed to represent their country as diplomats. Only in 1973 was a woman allowed to have both a diplomatic position and a husband. To this day, a female head of mission has never existed in Tokyo, Beijing or Paris. Only a few years ago, the future UK ambassador at the Vatican was assumed by male officials to be their secretary. Through these appalling facts, old and new, McCarthy in Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat explores the professional lives of women in an overwhelmingly male field, chipping in her own personal stories.

Susan Pedersen, writing for the Guardian, praises McCarthy for her “verve and nicely restrained outrage”, adding that “this is not simply a history of slow institutional change. It is also a work of recovery.” According to Pederson, struggling women are recovered through McCarthy’s “vivid and engaging portraits”, an idea echoed by the Independent’s Kate Williams, who praises “this important book full of brilliant vignettes.” Despite concluding that “the complexities come out beautifully in the lives recovered in this book”, Pederson is sceptical of the “largely biographical approach and breezy style” which “leave[s] foundational issues underanalysed.”

Roger Morgan of the Times Higher Education also criticises stylistics, particularly the transition from maiden names to married names, claiming that “Readers interested in tracing individual careers will sometimes be confused by the discriminatory convention that women, unlike men, are expected to change their surnames on marriage.” He also critiques the “shortage of space” which “prevents McCarthy from going into full detail on many aspects of her wide-ranging subject.” However, like Pederson and Williams, Morgan concludes positively that this work is a “pioneering study” which supplies “a penetrating, readable and most welcome introduction to a neglected set of issues.” Despite following 150 years of progress, McCarthy’s searching analysis shows there is still a long way to go.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump