Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Erica Heller, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Adam Levin.

Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller

In the Independent, Emma Hagestadt writes that "Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, seems to have weathered her girlhood better than most daughters of celebrated literary lions. [Her] book shows a robust acceptance of her father's overbearing personality and Don Draperesque approach to marriage and fatherhood."

Carolyn Kellogg opines in the Los Angeles Times that this is a "vital read ... [Erica] didn't idolise her father, but she portrays his complexities with sympathy." "Dominating the memoir is the story of Erica's parents' marriage ... Erica believes that her wise-cracking, charismatic father was still deeply tied to her mother," writes Hagestadt.

Kellogg notes that, "While writing Catch-22, Heller worked as a copywriter for Time, Look and McCall's magazines and for Remington Rand Corporation ... The New York of the period leaps off the page. Heller's cronies included Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo and Speed Vogel, and Erica captures their 'food orgies' in Chinatown."

Ian Sansom, in the Guardian, writes that, according to Erica, Heller "'took his meat, and his meals, unabashedly seriously'; everything else he treated as a joke. He had everything, but it wasn't enough ... Erica concludes simply that Heller was 'indecipherable.'"

The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Leyla Sanai writes in the Independent that the novel begins with "an old man who lives alone, Farley ... lying on his bathroom floor having suffered a stroke. His probable fate is made horribly real to us in achingly lyrical prose." The book spans "time to create a hauntingly poignant portrait of a Dublin existence, rendered, as is every life in close-up, extraordinary." Sara Keating, writing in the Irish Times, comments that "Dywer Hickey's skill is like that of a painter, slowly layering detail to provide a composite view... there are no clever tricks with hindsight or irony. There are no surprise revelations. There is just the measured pleasure of intimacy with Farley."

Keating describes the book as "a moving portrayal of elderly loneliness and regret. However, as Dwyer Hickey reveals through a clever reverse chronology, Farley has not always been a curmudgeon. He once had dreams and passions of his own." Sanai finds that "Dwyer Hickey's writing is acutely insightful and perfectly balances sorrow, joy and humour. Weepingly moving passages are juxtaposed with hilariously irreverent dialogue worthy of Roddy Doyle."

In the Guardian, Stevie Davies concludes that this is "the most profound novel I have read for years ... Farley's life story is told in reverse chronology, 2010 to 1940 - a technique capable of ingenious satiric force ... [the novel] slips back decade by decade, questing for origins and causes."

The Instructions by Adam Levin

Joshua Cohen, in the New York Times, writes that "this fat tablet is partly a theologico-political tract, and mostly a chronicle of four days in the life of a junior high schooler in suburban Illinois ... Gurion's your typical Midwestern prodigy... yet one of the most promising students ever to grace an Illinois Solomon Schechter School can't keep from fighting others." Tim Martin writes in the Telegraph that "we encounter [Gurion] in ... a high-security education experiment known as The Cage, which is attempting to tutor a gang of behaviourally disordered unteachables."

Martin comments that "Levin has put a lot of effort into Gurion's vernacular, which crawls with sticky idioms and madcap coinages" which will "either enthral you with its playfulness and experimentation or leave you grinding your teeth and howling."

"The reader of The Instructions is pinioned by Gurion's madly chatty first-person for the book's entire length ... an exercise in extreme observation that makes a bare four days of narrative time feel like years of chest-crushing reading", points out Martin. "Rarely has a first novel so cried out for a good editor." Cohen is also disappointed by the novel, which "ultimately devolves not into commentaries and interpretive apparatuses but into a vague ending ... This all makes for a very long joke: a setup that lacks a punch line."

According to Michael Sayeau in the New Statesman: "The faux artlessness of Levin's digressions, the posed credulity of seeming not to understand that he is asking his readers for something they wouldn't want to give, seem to serve as a screening veil for an author clearly smart enough to write a taut and economical work of fiction instead of this."

Getty
Show Hide image

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