2019 goodbye to all that …

As 2020 is upon us,  here is a brief look at some of the titles I reviewed in 2019. I would like to wish everyone a Happy – and not at all volatile – New Year.

January I looked at Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:

“Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.”

April

VanGogh

“Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.’

This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.”

May

I reviewed this savage memoir of rape and childhood trauma

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe,  Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

 

 Also in May I looked at a collection of essays by Mary Oliver,

 

He was probably only looking for a partner. So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear.    This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to,  as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.”

 

 

June – From bears to invisible women,  Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I reviewed Caroline Criado Perez research on the data bias that causes invisibility of the female in data about ‘mankind’.  Essential reading for anyone who assumes that in the 21st century equality of the sexes is a done deal.

 

July – Virginia Hall’s daredevil exploits during World War 2

Review:

“her service is even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.”

 

In September – my book of the year,  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

At once both ultra contemporary and completely ageless, this book sums up societies both sides of the Atlantic as they ruthlessly are rather than as we might like to see ourselves.

” Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK.”

 

In November Edward Snowden came to tell us about the world we are creating for ourselves through unbridled and poorly understood – yes even by those who are supposed to know  – technology.

snowdencover

 

“I was worried that the book might be quite technical and I wouldn’t understand it.  But I need not have worried.  Permanent Record is much more about the why rather than the how.  Why a young man might give up his whole life as he knows it – home, family, friends, extremely well paid job – for his principles.”

 

In December, Harry Lee Poe’s  biography of writer C.S. Lewis

“Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.”

 

 

 

 

Read this book and never touch a computer or smartphone again

#Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Who out there has not heard of Snowden?   Few I imagine.  He is the NSA and CIA worker who blew the whistle  on the massive surveillance dragnet that the US government (the UK as well and every other government that has access to a terminal) perpetrates routinely on its private citizens – who are no longer private citizens at all but mere data subjects.

snowdencover

Although it’s not in the book, I remember Snowden being quoted as saying we are building the greatest weapon for oppression of mankind that has been seen.  He was talking about the internet.

When I listened to the interview that he did on the podcast The Joe Rogan Experience (it’s still available on Overcast) I was shocked to hear Rogan admit that he hadn’t read Snowden’s book.  Why I wondered to myself would you go into a three hour interview with one of the most famous whistleblowers of the 21st century without having read his book?

I have read the book.  And I was happy to see it.  Having watched Laura Poitras film Citizenfour (2014), and knowing that Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill the Guardian journalists who broke the Snowden story  – have all raised their profiles and had stories out of this young man’s sacrifice, it was time that we heard his own story.  And here it is, beautifully written and entertaining as well as vitally important.

I was worried that the book might be quite technical and I wouldn’t understand it.  But I need not have worried.  Permanent Record is much more about the why rather than the how.  Why a young man might give up his whole life as he knows it – home, family, friends, extremely well paid job – for his principles.

The book starts with the author’s childhood,

“Many of the first 2000 or so nights of my life ended in civil disobedience – until the night I turned six years old – I discovered direct action.  The authorities weren’t interested in calls for reform,”

moves on to his love of tech born of playing early console games,   a chequered school career dogged by illness, boredom and parental divorce and his attempt to join special forces which was cut brutally short by a training injury.

He felt that tech was too easy for him – that he didn’t want computers to be the way he earned his living.   But it seems the digital writing was already on the wall.   Snowden was catapaulted forward by determination, and the need to earn a living.

What followed was a meteoric rise within the intelligence community.

“It’s only in hindsight that I’m able to appreciate just how high my star had risen.  I’d gone from being the student who couldn’t speak in class to being the teacher of the language of a new age….  In just seven short years of my career, I’d climbed from maintaining local servers to crafting and maintaining globally deployed systems – from graveyard-shift security guard to key master of the puzzle palace.”

But his unfettered access to documents set him on his path to questioning … and the questioning led to his discovery of a program called XKEYSCORE.  He describes this as the exact point of the interface between the state and its surveillance targets.

 ‘Everyone’s communications were in the system – everyone’s.’

And this information we learn is being kept, stored in gigantic underground servers somewhere, forever.

The book covers his flight to Hong Kong and the breaking of the story to the world’s press, the US authorities cancelling his passport stranding him in Russia (where he still lives) and his partner (now wife) Lindsay’s unfailing support despite being targeted herself after he left.

Recently someone tweeted “Why is there only one whistleblower?”   Snowden’s response? “Gee, I wonder!”

Changes have to come.  In the EU we now have the General Data Protection Regulations which posits the data as the property of the person it represents, not of the body collecting it.  But the internet, as Snowden points out, is global and we all have numerous digital selves wandering about out there stateless.

What started out in the 80s as a few capable people exchanging geeky programming language with one another across the globe, has turned into an instrument of state oppression the Stasi would have wept to possess.

“Any elected government that relies on surveillance to maintain control of a citizenry that regards surveillance as anathema to democracy has effectively ceased to be a democracy.  Such cognitive dissonance on a geopolitical scale has helped to bring individual privacy concerns back into the international dialogue within the context of human rights.”

I sincerely hope that the US and all of our so-called democracies can move past the fearmongering to more humanistic models of society which recognise and uphold individual freedoms,  and that one day this courageous young man will be allowed to return home.