Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A Butterfly Faps in New York... -The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson

Technically, this isn’t a book, it’s a podcast, but it’s available for free for those with an Audible subscription, so it counts. Sort of.

In the 1990s, a Belgian lad called Fabian had a wonderful idea: Free Pr0n. He belonged to an internet group which would share passwords to porn sites enabling those unable or unwilling to use a credit card to pay themselves the joy of fapping merrily along to the onscreen antics. Years later he would realise his dream, becoming the owner of sites like Pornhub, RedTube and others, as well as becoming the kind of multi-millionaire who has an underground aquarium and employs a diver to scrub the inside of it.

I, too, was a teenager in the 90’s and remember the dark days in which Fabian’s dream grew. Those lucky few who had Sky TV installed would immediately be asked if they received the German sex channels and a mental note subsequently made about whether one should begin being nicer to them. My first job was as the Saturday girl in a paper shop where every week a man who lived with his mother and looked like Michael Gove after 20 years of pie would buy a wank mag and smoothly stick it in his copy of The Telegraph for his walk back up the hill.

The Butterfly Effect is Ronson’s investigation into the consequences of Fabian’s Free Porn empire, from the performers and their shrinking paychecks to the thousand percent increase in erectile dysfunction in young men. It is a fascinating journey which has been intelligently put together. His first trip is to the computer programmers - a subject I would have been enthusiastic about anyway - where he learns about the breakdown of data and how this is used to design website, how they get people connected with the things they want to see. This leads him to the porn director, who tells him about how he now has to create his pornography for the website keywords, for a particular niche, Cheerleader Step-Daughter Gang Bang volume 2 etc. This leads him somewhere else, and so on.

I’ve listened to few of Audible’s free shows but I’ve never been very impressed (I like audible, but their original content is not great) so I had few hopes for this, despite enjoying Jon Ronson’s books and journalism. I was wrong. As I got to the end of each episode I was fastforwarding through the credits to get to the next. It is fascinating.

Ronson is a British journalist, not a thousand light years from Louis Theroux, whose previous work has included Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare At Goats (made into a film with George Clooney). He’s a pretty good host for this journey and comes across as somebody who finds it all as fascinating as I do. He’s affable and has Theroux’s gift for taking anything anybody tells him with equanimity.

But Ronson is a listener. Unlike Theroux, he doesn’t push back, merely asks people for their stories. When his questions are included in the recording, they tend to be seeking an expansion of information rather than challenging their view or finding out more about why they hold it. This is sometimes frustrating, especially when there is something blindingly obvious to be asked, and sometimes problematic, because Ronson does have an agenda. You just don’t know about it until the final episode when he takes all he has found out and “confronts” Fabian, the man who dreamed of free porn, with everything his dream has “caused”. I am especially troubled by the implied connection between a man’s suicide, the Ashley Madison hack, and Fabian’s websites. It was not the only thing.

In the most frustrating part, Ronson challenges Fabian about the copyrighted work which is on his website. Fabian rejects the idea he is a thief - he has not uploaded it, users have, and if the makers want it removed then here is how you do that. It’s totally not Fabian’s fault that the site users don’t care about copyright. Except it is. The site owner is responsible for what is on the site. And Ronson doesn’t point this out, he doesn’t bring up comparable issues, like The Pirate Bay’s legal battles - it’s just… welp.

Then in an attempt to show it’s not all bad, Ronson presents something good he found in the industry. A group of people who act with incredible humanity and compassion to try and help somebody they don’t know and will never meet without asking for payment or even knowing if it will be received or do any good. Which, you know, is gives-me-hope-for-humanity levels of kindness, but hardly unique to the industry. It feels very much as though Ronson knew before he started what he thought about this and didn’t bother to go over it much making the investigation feel like an exercise in fulfilling a contract. Which is coincidentally the same problem I had with his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”.

There are plenty of other niggles, such as a man Ronson describes as being “harassed” into speaking with them (srsly, don’t do that), the focus on the involvement of porn in a story when it’s really more of an accessory to a problem, such as the young man who sent a girl 50 explicit messages in an attempt to impress her, and the focus on straight heterosexual porn aimed at young men.

The first 6 episodes are mainly terrific, interesting and massively educational. Then we have to have that final episode. Ronson attempts to paint Fabian as a villain but I respect him very much for his refusal to have any of it, especially as he is not responsible. Porn can be damaging in lots of ways, but it has as much to do with us as a society as with the product itself, and Ronson never seems to consider this as a factor.

4.5 stars for the first 6 episodes, I’ll pretend that final one doesn’t exist.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

It's Grim oop North - North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve read this one at least twice before - in fact, I have a feeling it was the first book I ever read on my Kindle Keyboard, providing me with the happy knowledge that I *could* manage to read Victorian literature and the problem lay, in part, with the font rather than my ability. Srsly, if you are dyslexic, consider a Kindle. It will change your life. Maybe.

This time I was giving the audiobook version a whirl, read by Juliet Stevenson, who is marvellous. She speaks clearly, she does the voices, she is everything I could want in a reader.

North and South is the story of clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Having been brought up in her aunt’s household, her cousin’s marriage means Margaret is to return home, to Hampshire. Except, her father hides a terrible secret: he is a dissenter who is no longer able to serve the Church of England. He will quit his modest living and they will move north, to the smoke filled air of Milton, where he will earn money as a tutor thanks to the kindness and connections of an old friend.

Initially it’s difficult to like Margaret. She has an arrogance borne of ignorance - she has things to say about how much she will not be consorting with the men of trade. She dislikes Milton. But she has a tenacity to her - this is her situation and she is going to do what she can to get on with it.

Mr Hale’s student is on Mr John Thornton, a self-made mill owner whom Margaret initially holds in contempt for that unlofty position. But he is a gentleman, and the dance of calls and obligations between the two families bring them into familiarity.

This is a Victorian novel, so there is obviously a deeply boring and preachy bit: Bessie Higgins, the millworker Margaret visits who suffers from Stagnation o’t’Lungs (possibly) is even worse in audio form. Maybe you have more patience than I and will not spend the hours she spends going on about how she is going to die, and how she is looking forward to it, and how fabulous Margaret is, thinking “Jesus, would you throw yourself in a well, already?”. Grit your teeth through these bits, it does improve.

And this is, at its heart a romance. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Thornton will fall for Margaret while she has vowed she will never get married. His declarations, his mother’s reactions, the development of her feelings and the blocks which stand between them feel realistic, as does the way they resolve themselves.

I particularly liked that everybody involved seemed, to my modern ears, to have a bit of a point. Margaret is right to think an employer has a responsibility to his employees, Thornton is right to say it’s none of his business what they do outside their contracted hours, and Higgins, Bessie’s father, is right to value himself and his skills and fight with the union to protect their employment.

It’s an interesting novel to read in these modern times. The questions about wages, the import of cheap labour, the downward race in contracted hours, the power of the unions, are all still extremely pertinent. North and South would lend itself very easily to a modern update.

The thing I most liked is the way everybody feels the consequences of their actions, good and bad. None of them are completely right and none completely wrong. Gaskell has terrific fidelity of character - they change, but what they are remains.

Most people describe North and South as a Northern Pride and Prejudice, which is not an unreasonable comparison, but North and South has far more story, and Margaret Hale far more impetus and independence than Lizzie Bennett (helped greatly by the 50 odd years between them). That said, she also has Bessie Higgins to put up with.

I’m sure there’s a well around here somewhere.

4 stars

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Feminist Dystopia A-go-go - The Power by Naomi Alderman

Image of The Power's book cover
Cosmopolitan magazine describes The Power as “The Hunger Games crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale”. I assume the description was written by somebody who has heard of both of those things but experienced neither.

Teenage girls can hurt. Something has given them the power to generate electricity - a flick of a finger brings a target agony, or death. The power can be woken in adult women, too. And with power comes freedom.

I found The Power to be something of a mixed bag. Naomi Alderman splits her story between a variety of characters - a US mayor, a runaway teen, a Nigerian man who becomes the journalist charting the female uprisings, the daughter of an east end gangster - to give this story a world stage. This sort of structure is only as good as its least draggable character. Alderman’s… vary.

When it’s good, it’s brilliant. I have particular love for the snide background development of the CNN anchors. But in other ways it’s a touch weak - Roxy, in particular, feels, shall we say, underdeveloped when compared with the creations of an author like Martina Cole, who specialises in the gangland culture Roxy supposedly hails from. Her transition from being her father’s daughter to the place she ends up feels inauthentic and suspiciously easily achieved. 

I also felt like it was weakened by its adherence to its story, which drives toward a particular crisis point losing some sense of the organic in its desire to adhere to its central idea. And in spreading the story so widely across the world, it left gaps. All the small human questions I had were overlooked, or dealt with in the briefest way. Obviously it would be a ridiculous - and extremely long - book which had some kind of checklist to ensure all points of view were represented, but still, I was never quite sold on the idea that the universal response to the gaining of the power would be to use it, as though our inability to cause harm is what stops us from ruling the world. Most women have the ability to pick up a chair and whack somebody with it, but we don’t, because… it’s illegal? Or because it’s really mentally difficult to physically hurt somebody, even when we are threatened ourselves? (The effect on women of causing this hurt is touched on very lightly) Or because a lifetime of indoctrination (that we don’t run, we don’t shout, we are nice and neat and polite) does not evaporate with the ability to zap somebody, whatever your culture.

Women are their own jailers as much as men. The Smurfette Principle (the idea that there can only be one woman in the room) makes us compete against each other for that single available space, so we put each other down and we define our value by how much the boys like us. That was the biggest gap in this book: the LadyShields; the Anne Coulters and Kelly Ann Conways; the blonde soccer moms who warn their sons to be careful because girls will lie about them to ruin their lives. 

It also, understandably, steers away from what could have been a controversial and badly handled element: transgender people. Transgender people should exist in this novel, even if only as a background story, but they don’t. All of this said, it’s the mark of a good book that I’ve got all of these What about…? scenarios to complain about - I’m engaged with it.

Overall, I did enjoy it, very much. It should be a definite read for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale - Atwood is Alderman’s mentor - not only for the feminist dystopia element, but because of the way Alderman has used reality. She’s taken her cue from the history of female oppression and applied it intelligently to her world. It makes for difficult reading at times. 

The best dystopian fiction is a mirror and we are not wrong to be afraid.

4 stars

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Baby Spart(an) Do Do Do Do Do Do - The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I’m going to assume that you’re familiar with the Iliad because it’s been out a while, so, Spoilers, I guess?

The Song of Achilles is a retelling, one which takes the myth and runs with it. Here Achilles really is the son of a sea nymph, he is trained by a centaur, and gods play their part in the lives of man.

I used to know my Classics a lot better that I do now - Roger Lancelyn Green’s books were a staple of my childhood library - so this was a book which unfolded for me. I remembered each plot point as we hit it, so I’m entirely the wrong person to ask if it makes any logical sense. It probably doesn’t. It certainly could have done a better job of selling ancient motivations to a modern audience.

The story is told by Patroclus, a prince and, when he begins this story, unlikely candidate for Helen’s hand in marriage. I am super here for a room full of men deciding what will happen to a teenage girl, as you can imagine. This is a male story, though, and Miller doesn’t attempt to change that.

However, when Patroclus inadvertently kills another boy, he is exiled to the court of Peleus where he falls swooningly in love with Mary Sue Achilles, who’s super perfect at everything (as one expects from a demi-god). Thetis, Achilles’ mother, really hates Patroclus. The boys go off to learn things on a mountain. They are swoonily swoony. They come back. Thetis hates Patroclus. Then she hides Achilles because she doesn’t want him to go to Troy as he will be killed.

Once the war actually begins, a good half way through the book, things improve, in part because there’s actually things happening. There is air of inexorability to the whole thing which really gets into its stride in the last third as we make the drive towards what is fated to happen (and we’re no longer reading rambling scenes about how swoony teenage Achilles is).

When Miller hits the predetermined narrative events, she’s good. When she’s making her own way between, she’s… less good.

For a book which treats the gods as real, there’s an awful lot of “something’s happening because the gods are displeased” conversations, followed by “here’s the solution to that” conversations. Obviously there’s no one correct version of many of the myths, but sometimes Miller takes the path of most boredom, such as the demand for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Apollo’s appearance on the walls of Troy especially charmed me, so the omission of the gods involvement in other ways, even as a background, felt disappointing.

I am also critical of the characterisation. Odysseus is great, true, but everybody else? Eh.

Achilles lives his whole life chained to the prophecies made about him, but whatever this does to him remains unexplored. He’s just some guy. Admittedly one who is super good at everything and jolly good looking. And when we’re reading the narrative of a boy, then man, who is in love with him, I’d really have preferred to grasp the appeal.

Thetis is especially poorly done. Like her son she is chained to the pronouncements of the Fates, but here she is a pure JustNoMil. She’s such a central figure in the original myth - the Trojan war begins because of a prophecy made about her: the son of Thetis will be greater than his father, hence “marriage” to Peleus, hence somebody not doing the invitations right, hence golden apple etc etc etc

I was also unreasonably annoyed that Miller chooses to not use the one thing everybody knows about our demi-god: that he really should have invested in some foot armour. Google assures me Homer doesn’t include the story of Thetis’s attempt to make her son invulnerable and immortal, but Homer doesn’t include Achilles’ death, either. Or the romantic relationship between him and Patroclus. It felt like a massive oversight rather than a deliberate decision.

The beginning was interesting if not grippy. Then it got a bit dull. Then a bit duller. Then, by the end, it was very good indeed. I don’t rule out reading Circe, Miller’s second full length novel, but I could just as easily not. Overall?

3 stars

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

There’s no point in separating the reviews for these three - Call the Midwife Omnibus by Jennifer Worth

You may have heard, only very vaguely mind, of this show on BBC1 on Sunday nights. It’s set in 50’s London, in the east end, and is about a cabal of nuns who train a gang of young women to rip 9 month-old fetuses from the wombs of the desperately poor. It was based on a series of books, Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End. Because I am lazy, I’ll be offering a very vague review which covers all three books.

Basically, it’s like the TV series but with more words.

Call The Midwife covers Jenny Lee’s entry to Poplar and her early days as a midwife. Shadows of the Workhouse is largely concerned with stories from the community, about the poverty and deprivation which existed in the first half of the century. Farewell to the East End concentrates on the cases attended by Worth’s co-workers, Trixie, Chummy and Cynthia.

There was less focus on midwifery than I expected but Worth is a good writer who can tell an engaging tale in a largely non judgemental way - the worst I could say of her is that she thinks like somebody born before the war. She represents the time and the struggles well but keeps a veil drawn across her own life and her own circumstances. I think there are questions to be asked about the morality of profiting from stories which don’t belong to you, but I recognise that without Worth, they would have been lost: the people whose stories she tells have nobody else.

I enjoyed the third book the most, coincidentally the first of the three I read. It focussed on the midwifery and took a more technical approach to things. I’ve yet to find anybody willing to impregnate me, so I had little appreciation for quite how much goes on as one attempts to extract life from one’s vagina - let me tell you, it is fascinating.

The books don’t quite have that terrific mix of edge and cosy the TV show has, but the bones are here. Chummy, Trixie et al are not significant side characters in the way Siegfried and Tristan are in James Herriot’s memoirs, and there’s no overarching “story”, so those hoping for an expansion on the show - in the way books often are to their screen counterparts - will leave disappointed.

I liked them, but I didn’t love them. There’s honestly not much to pick one over the other, so don’t be afeered to start out of order, there’s no story arc here. They were interesting, though, and with me that counts for a lot.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

That's one word for them - Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Rachel Chu is about to spend her first summer in Singapore in the company of her loving boyfriend, Nick. While there, she will attend his best friend’s wedding (which she doesn’t yet realise is the society ticket of the century) and meet his family (who, she doesn’t yet realise, are the possessors of most of Asia’s wealth). Nothing here could possibly go wrong.

So, the problem I had with this book is that it has a premise, not a story. Chinese American girl is going to find out her boyfriend is from an uber rich family. So, where’s the conflict? You’ll have to wait for the end of the book for that to be introduced. Oh, we try, with some boring meangirl antics (because Nick is a very eligible bachelor indeed), but it’s never a battle and it’s never entertaining. Something is done to Rachel. Something else is done to Rachel. We’re supposed to be on her side, I guess, she is the everygirl whose terrific fortune we wish could be ours. She and Nick were dull, two dimensional, and I didn’t find them believable to root for.

I couldn’t buy Nick’s naivete, his surprise that he might need to prepare Rachel for the extent of his family’s wealth, or the circles they move in. I couldn’t buy Rachel’s surprise, either. She’s supposed to be have brought up in a slightly hand-to-mouth fashion, her mother having cash-in-hand jobs at Chinese Restaurants and frequently moving. Are you seriously expecting me to buy that she didn’t notice Nick’s obliviousness to the stresses and strains of normal life? That he, brought up in a world of Balliol college, private chefs, and hundred thousand dollar outfits, could pass for a normal income person?

The story also follows Nick’s mother Eleanor - who has no intention of letting her son be hitched to an mainland China born nobody - and Nick’s cousin Astrid - who’s developing concerns about what her husband may be getting up to on his business trips.

I liked Astrid, very much. Eagerness to get back to her story got me through the early stages of the book, but towards the end her story feels too rapidly wrapped up. We’re told early on in the book what will happen with her husband but the way it gets there is terribly put together.

Eleanor’s story is a mixed bag. The account of her life and her set make for a far more interesting backdrop than Rachel’s hotel suites and island resorts, but her rather predictable quest to find some dirt on the potential daughter-in-law is enlivened by what she finds out.

I can see this has the bones to be really good film but on paper everything is too thin, the writing too janky, and the main characters too tepid to be really good. That said, it was very enjoyable in part because it’s so different to a lot of what I’ve read. It’s unapologetically trashy and I liked that. While I’d certainly read Kwan’s other books, it would be from the library rather than a purchase.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

What's big and green and slightly annoying? - Watermelon by Marian Keyes

Looking at the scores I tend to give Marian Keyes, one could be forgiven for thinking I didn’t like her books very much. Actually, I do. I like her very much. In times of crisis, when my head is elsewhere and things are (hopefully metaphorically) on fire, I reach for Keyes. Ditto Sophie Kinsella. I have the same problem with The Hunger Games books - I didn’t rate them terribly highly but I’ve read them in hardcopy and audiobook form half-a-dozen times. So, although I must have read this several times over the last few years, I’ve never written a review of it.

Claire Walsh has had an eventful day. Not only has she given birth to her first child, her husband has up and left her for the downstairs neighbour. So, in full Scarlett O’Hara mode, she heads home to Tar- to Dublin, baby in tow. Shenanigans ensue.

Watermelon was Keyes debut, first published in 1995 - the year Bridget Jones’ Diary was first published in the Independent - before chick lit was even a thing. I’m not sure who actually bears the credit for inventing the genre, but there’s probably a good case to be made for this book being one of the first. Some staples of the genre are here: the chatty style, the smexy good times, the young lady getting her fella, but not the shopping, hateful office job and drinking culture which would come with Keye’s second novel.

Keye’s major strength is her writing style (which also extends to her Twitter account.). She’s got this pleasing, humorous intimacy, exactly like your best mate is relating what’s gone on with her recently (presuming your best mate is really good at telling a story). And Keyes is also brilliant at the supporting characters - Helen Walsh is a legend who only gets greater with each Walsh family novel while Mammy Walsh has her title written on her soul.

However, Keye’s writing has certainly got better over the years.

Too often the prose is broken down.

And let me tell you, it’s pretty tiresome.

It makes it look as though the formatting on my kindle has met with a hideous accident.

I’m not a fan.

And then there’s Adam, hunky love interest. The development of his relationship with Claire is … troublesome. Claire, as might be expected for a woman who’s been hit with the “I don’t love you and I’ve already moved my clothes into the new apartment I’m sharing with Nice Denise” bombshell by her husband a few hours after dropping their sprog, finds it difficult to trust Adam. When he takes longer than expected to buy a cup of coffee, she becomes convinced he’s legged it and makes preparations to leave only for him to reappear and begin acting as though she’s spat in that beverage he’s clutching. What an insult! That she could think he’d do that! What kind of terrible person is she, to think something like that about him? It could be lifted straight from a book about a woman in an abusive relationship and made me want to tell him to get in the fucking sea.

More generally things feel convenient in the way of a novel - Claire can’t sleep so she cycles madly for nights and gets her figure back super fast, that sort of thing.

The main flaw is the one I have with all my least favourite Keye’s novels - the heroine has no direction. Claire has this terrible thing happen to her and this is the story of how she copes with it, but she’s not actively doing anything except getting through the days. It’s the same problem I have with Angels, and The Woman Who Stole My Life. Although they’re entertaining enough, they lack the drive (and subsequently the stakes) of her best work: Rachel’s Holiday. Claire has no fail state to avoid.

If you’ve never read Keyes, do yourself a favour and don’t start here, but if you enjoy her it’s worth picking up. It shows the promise of what Keyes would go on to become: a really good writer who is worth reading even at her weakest. And a really good place to go when everything has gone horribly wrong.

3 Stars