Welcome to Part II of my mini reviews (Part I here). When I went through the books I’d read since I last blogged in January before deciding to come back, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of reading I actually did get done. Especially considering that most days, the only thing I was capable of when I got back from work was to flop down on the couch and watch TV series. But I suppose this is where my habit of not being able to sleep without reading a few pages before switching off the light pays off. Anyway, without further ado, here are another three books that stayed with me from my nine-month blogging break (I just realised I could’ve had a child during that time… bit of a scary thought!).
Luke Harding: The Snowden Files (2014)
While Dave Egger’s The Circle completely failed to convince me, this non-fiction book on Edward Snowden’s revelations of wide-spread NSA and GHCQ spying on common citizens struck a chord. I love a good piece of investigative journalism and couldn’t fail to like this book. When Snowden first made his revelations in 2013, my reaction was lukewarm, like that of many people I know. Even though it quickly came out that ordinary Germans had been the victims of spying, and with the consent of more than one big tech company, I remember that many people just shrugged it off, with the general tone being “I haven’t done anything illegal, so I don’t care if they know.” It later transpired that Angela Merkel’s beloved mobile phone had been tapped, and only then did many people really start to get upset. So did I, but I got more upset that I hadn’t gotten upset earlier. Because while I might somehow expect a foreign intelligence service to spy on politicians – let’s be honest, they’re all doing that, this is part of intelligence, although it’s not the best of manners to spy on your “closest allies” -, I wouldn’t expect them to collect huge amounts of data on me, especially if I haven’t given them any reason whatsoever to suspect that I might be up to something. I didn’t like the way many people idolised Snowden – because I have a general problem with idolisation – but he most certainly did make a very important, very brave decision, and he deserves a lot of recognition for that. Not many people would’ve had the guts to do what he did. Even though I disagree with some of his ideological motivations, fundamentally he was right: no State should collect the kind of sensitive data that the NSA and GHCQ habitually hoovered up (and probably continue to hoover up) from its own innocent citizens or the innocent citizens of any other country, with next to no accountability to democratic institutions. Indeed, if Germany would’ve granted him political asylum, as was briefly discussed a few months ago, I would support that decision wholeheartedly. Luke Harding’s book is a thrilling account of how he and his colleagues revealed the information Snowden gave them bit by bit, and how they were threatened and persecuted by intelligence services – the heights of it certainly being the holding of David Miranda (Glen Greenwald’s partner) at Heathrow Airport and the smashing up of computers in The Guardian’s basement. Highly recommended reading.
Tom Rachman: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (2014)
Having greatly enjoyed Rachman’s first novel The Imperfectionists, I had high hopes for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. I have to admit that the title did its bit to draw my attention. It’s about a young woman, Tooly, who has had a very unusual childhood: from country-hopping with her emotionally stunted father to country-hopping with her unreliable mother and a cast of more or less shady characters, Tooly has never managed to put down roots anywhere. She’s just in the process of doing so in her less-than-profitable bookshop in Wales, when her ex-boyfriend contacts her about who he thinks is her father, an old Russian called Humphrey who basically brought her up. Tooly travels to the US to find Humphrey, which becomes a trip into her past and leads her to try to untangle the story of her life and finally tie up all the loose ends she herself doesn’t understand. Sadly, I have to say that the book left me somewhat cold. I read it all, and I liked bits of it – especially her conversations with Humphrey when he was younger and the way he taught her to love books – but I didn’t grow to appreciate all the characters like I did with The Imperfectionists. Fundamentally, the premise of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers seems quite similar as that of Rachman’s previous novel: he presents a large number of oddball characters and seeks to draw the reader into them. But what worked for me with The Imperfectionists didn’t work so well with his new book. I couldn’t quite get into the characters, not even into Tooly.
Roxane Gay: An Untamed State (2014)
I find Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State incredibly difficult to write about for two reasons. First, I expected something completely different, a much less “personal” account and more of a look at Haiti as a country. Second, as Ana of Things mean a lot so wisely put it, all the trigger warnings in the world wouldn’t be enough to forewarn you of what is about to hit you in An Untamed State. Mireille Duval Jameson, a young Haitian who has emigrated to the US and married an American, is visiting her family with her husband and young son. Leaving her wealthy parents’ house one day, she’s kidnapped and taken hostage right in front of her husband and son’s eyes. What ensues is a thirteen-day ordeal full of violence, rape, and humiliation that Mireille can only survive by completely negating herself. I can’t even begin to describe the horror Roxane Gay unflinchingly lays out. But An Untamed State is also about what Mireille goes through afterwards – everyone expects her to somehow “heal” after she has returned to her family and to the States, but nobody even has the faintest imagination of what she’s been through. While “shocking” isn’t enough to describe the first (main) part of the book, the second part really touched me. After her return, Mireille is in a state in which she’s so far removed from all the people that love her, she trusts no-one, and can’t open up to anyone because she can no longer escape the psychological survival mode that helped her make it through her kidnapping. This is the kind of book you can’t recommend, because it’s so intensely horrific. It left me with the same kind of feeling I had after watching Hotel Ruanda (this was more than ten years ago and I still can’t shake it). But even so, in my view this book is excellent. We need books that discuss the kind of issues Roxane Gay broaches in An Untamed State, and while I understand if you don’t want to read about them, I’m glad I did. I also want to recommend Ana’s review, which first got me interested in the book.