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Thoughts on the Serial podcast

Among my friends, not having an opinion about the Serial podcast is roughly as socially acceptable as not having an opinion on the Cereal Killer cafe. And as someone who listens to a lot of podcasts (most of them actually of radio shows), I feel particularly entitled to have a view.

For those who have been offline over the last few months, Serial was a weekly podcast with a new episode released each week. It was presented and produced by experienced American radio journalist Sarah Koenig. The podcast followed Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 murder of schoolgirl Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, had been convicted and imprisoned.

General life and busyness mean that I didn’t quite manage to keep up with the weekly pace of Sarah Koenig and Co’s Serial. A couple of week ago, though, I finally finished the first season; here follow a few jotted thoughts.

Serial-2

It was very addictive…

Serial displaced everything else on my podcast playlist. I listened to episode after episode, and couldn’t get enough. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward with keen anticipation to the second season.

…but not as innovative as many people suggested.

Blog post after newspaper column after magazine review have suggested that Serial‘s format of a single story told over several weeks is novel, yet Radio 4 has used this structure for decades on hundreds (probably thousands) of dramas, and tens (probably hundreds) of documentary series. The combination of a sort of gonzo journalism and drama was, I concede, a little unusual—but not novel.

Sarah Koenig was the perfect host…

I’ve never listened to anything Koenig has done before. I don’t know if she’s a regular on This American Life because (heresy ahead) I don’t listen to that show. But for this, she was perfect. She has a brilliant radio voice and great way of writing text that pulls in the listener. This listener can’t praise her presentation highly enough.

…but the overall tone was odd.

Jonathan Rothwell wrote a few weeks ago about the weirdness of the show’s slightly jaunty ‘whodunnit’ tone and the way in which this jars with the reality of what is being described. This is a real life brutal murder case; the very existence of the journalist’s investigation implies a reasonable suspicion of a miscarriage of justice, with all the additional harm that carries; yet the story is often treated rather lightly. I found the cognitive dissonance of content and tone unsettling.

The production was fantastic…

The handoffs between Koenig’s presentation and clips of interviews and archive material were seamless. I think this owes much to the writing and the presentation, but also the production and compilation of clips that demonstrated each point was impressive. This is something a lot of Radio 4 productions do really badly, so it’s a joy to hear it done well.

…except for the use of music.

Music is powerful, and especially so in radio drama where the only stimulus is auditory. If you add in music underneath a witness’s recorded testimony, it will change my perception of that testimony. If you are trying to make a balanced review of a case to allow me to reach my own conclusions, then your music is likely to be prejudicial. If you are trying to make drama and argue for one side or another, you probably shouldn’t be playing with people’s lives through a podcast.

I worried about the narration overstating facts…

There were a few episodes in which the characterisations of events in the narration extended beyond the described facts of the case. It is difficult to describe exactly what I mean without giving an example – apologies if this counts as a spoiler.

In episode six, there is a lot of discussion of the ‘neighour-boy’. He is reported as having once said that he had been shown the body, but he did not testify at the trial. This is repeatedly characterised Koenig as the ‘neighbour-boy’ being a witness to the murder. This is evidently false: seeing a body is not equivalent to seeing a murder.

There are a few similar incidents through the series, and I can’t quite decide whether they are mere slips of the tongue, or whether there is a conscious decision to refer to the events in these terms to heighten the drama. Either way, given the import of the situation, it seems plainly to be wrong, and unfair to interviewees as much as to the accused.

…and got a bit claustrophobic in parts.

This may be the public health physician coming out in me, but I felt that the series was very narrowly focused on the case at hand—with a couple of notable exceptions. The series would have benefited from drawing more on similar cases and from aggregated data about many cases. I wanted stats!

I don’t know why it aired before completion…

It isn’t clear to me why Serial started airing before the series was complete. It seems a curious decision, and one with which I’m not entirely comfortable. Hypothetically, if someone had confessed, would the series have continued? Would it have been fair to air a recorded confession prior proper investigation? Would it be fair even to report such a confession? Starting a story which has such a big impact on the lives of all involved without clear knowledge of where it might end strikes me as mildly irresponsible.

I think this changed the nature of the podcast, too—the tone and focus seemed to shift as the podcast went on, in a way which might well be attributable to the media coverage it generated. It started out as an exploration of the limits of reasonable doubt, and ended as an unsolved whodunnit. The former was a more interesting concept, with more interesting stuff to explore, than the latter.

…nor why there were strange gaps in the story.

Relevant questions seemed to go undiscussed in Serial – though it’s possible I just missed them. (Possible spoilers ahead.) It’s not clear to me whether Jay knew where the body was. It’s repeatedly said that Jay was able to show where the victim’s car was, but there’s no discussion of whether he knew the location of the body. This is a bizarre omission given that his story is that he helped to bury the body.

And don’t get me started about that conclusion.

I felt like the podcast got a bit wrapped up in itself by the end. My impression throughout was that the intention was to explore the nature of reasonable doubt. It seemed as though the show caved to externally generated expectation to ‘solve’ the crime in the final episode – an unrealistic expectation which wasn’t met, but was sort of pointed at and talked around. This was a shame. I would’ve liked a much more strident ending that pointed out (spoilers ahead) that – no – we don’t know who committed the murder but – yes – the trial outcome was wrong because of the gulf of doubt. I wanted Koenig to come out fighting about ‘innocent until proven guilty’, not giving a personal reflection on her own personal theories about Syed’s guilt or innocence.

But overall—I can’t wait for Season Two.

There were problems, but—all things considered—I enjoyed Serial. It’s great to hear speech radio done really, really well. I donated towards a second season and will look forward to listening to it. In the meantime, I’m now totally hooked on another This American Life alumnus’s podcast: Alex Blumberg’s Startup (and Reply All, which I actually discovered first). Oh, and This Week in Google, of course. Not forgetting my preferred alarm clock, The Globalist. And More or Less. And… well… all the good stuff.

This 2,291st post was filed under: Media, Reviews, , .






Review: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is a book which has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. But, in the light of the recent outbreak, I thought the time to dive in has come.

The book describes an outbreak of Ebola, which occurred in the late 1980s in Washington, DC, a mere stone’s throw from the White House. The outbreak initially spread among imported monkeys and (I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler) then to a small number of humans. The narrative follows the medical, public health, and scientific teams involved in controlling and tackling the outbreak; describing not just their actions, but also their thoughts, feelings, fears, and reflections.

Preston converts this tale into a page-turning thriller. Much of the content isn’t typical thriller material, but Preston does a sterling job of explaining complex scientific concepts and processes in simple (yet accurate) terms; this is quite an achievement. Preston lends his eloquence to horrifying descriptions of Ebola-related deaths, which, I suspect, some readers might find hard to stomach. He also adds heaps of drama and tension that might reflect the atmosphere of a group of experts grappling with an outbreak of a deadly virus.

However, Preston does tend to lean toward the more extreme end of the physical and emotional range. He certainly has a talent for sensationalism. It is important to consider this book for what it is: a mass-market paperback thriller based on real events, not a level-headed factual report.

This book should appeal to many audiences: those with a passing interest in public health and infectious diseases; those with an interest in how major incidents and outbreaks are coordinated and handled; and those who enjoy a horrifying, suspenseful, and thrilling tale of a race against time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I admire the considerable skill of the author in creating a page-turner that stays true to the facts of the case, and in deftly explaining complex scientific concepts. Yet, I don’t think this is a book that I’ll ever re-read; once is enough. Still, I would absolutely recommend it.


The Hot Zone is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

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This 2,275th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .






Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

You may know that The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize in 1989. You may know that it remains one of the 20th century's most critically acclaimed novels. You may know that it was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1994.

Somehow, all of this passed me by. Indeed, when I downloaded it onto my Kindle, I thought it was a new release. Despite having read several of Ishiguro's novels in the past, my addled brain had (very) wrongly confused him with Haruki Murakami.

Yet even with my warped preconceptions, The Remains of the Day blew me away.

It is absorbing, beautifully composed, moving, and deep. The way this novel subtly drew me in and toyed with my emotions put me in mind of a Shostakovich piano concerto: the music does the work of capturing attention and emotion, and before you know it, without any particular effort or concentration, you are drawn into and beguiled by a whole new world.

The novel is narrated by an elderly butler on a road trip in the 1950s. He reflects on his life, and his strive for professionalism and 'dignity'. The characterisation is so complete that when I think of the narrator, Stevens, I think of a person rather than a character. The Remains of the Day is a novel about the nature of relationships: professional, personal, and, almost existentially, with oneself. It has glittering moments of humour which made me laugh out loud. And it has moments of remarkable tenderness – which are almost painful to read – and moments of morality and politics which provide genuine food for thought.

The composition is wonderful. The narrator is not entirely reliable, and infuses much of his commentary with predictable (possibly professional?) bias, but he also accurately reports speech in a way which allows the reader to fill in the gaps. This is hardly an original device, but it is rarely used to such profoundly devastating effect as in this work.

It is a matter of some fascination to me that so many other readers and reviewers describe this novel as 'sad'. Certainly, it reflects on a life which some might consider unfulfilled, and certainly, the tale of the narrator is heart-breaking. Yet I found the novel itself rather life-affirming. The Remains of the Day caused me to reflect on my own life – as all the best novels do – and to reflect with some satisfaction.

If I were to summarise this book in a single word, it would be: beguiling. I mean that in the more traditional sense of the word, both enchanting and mildly deceptive. Ishiguro does all the heavy-lifting in this book, guiding the reader through Stevens's world and gently signposting his flaws. Each word is chosen so carefully as to turn the prose into poetry. This is a challenging book, but by no means a challenging read.

I cannot recommend The Remains of the Day highly enough.

Remains of the Day is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

Post sponsored by Amazon

This 2,257th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .






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