Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Shame *clang* Shame *clang* - So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

When I recently reviewed Jon Ronson’s Podcasts, The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August, I commented that Ronson tended to feel on the side of the called out, having sympathy for the victim of the pile but not those damaged by their words and actions. I specifically pointed at this book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed as being guilty of that. However, it struck me afterwards that it had been a good while since I’d read it and could very well be wrong. This is a review of the re-read.

Spoiler Alert: I was not wrong.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is about the way Twitter and the internet has become a tool for holding people to account. Ronson speaks to various people who’ve had their lives “ruined” by online justice mobs, for serious transgressions or simply for poor attempts at humour.

First up is Jonah Lehrer, who was exposed for fabricating quotes and recycling much of his own work in an act of self-plagiarism. Ronson talks to the journalist who made the connection and it’s a fascinating section, the torturous responsibility of this knowledge, the reluctance to bring Lehrer down. But at no point does the idea that Jonah Lehrer is responsible for his own choices and his disgrace was a consequence of them raise its head. This very simple idea that if he, oh, I don’t know, didn’t make things up wholesale then there wouldn’t be an issue, never occurs. Instead, the media reaction is extreme, overdone.

And so it goes on.

A story which I remember being superbly narked by the first time I read the book, as well as when it was actually it the news, is that of Adria Richards who overheard two men making inappropriate jokes during a conference lecture about how to get more women into tech. She tweeted about it, the men were identified and after a public outcry, fired. Cue a counter outrage leading to her own firing. Unlike the men involved, by the end of the book she is still unemployed, yet that angle feels under examined.

Look. I write code. What do you think every stupid joke about big dongles, or “I’d fork that repo” or that girls writing code meme does? Or last weeks’ “men posing with booth babes” fest on twitter? A clue: it does not make this easier. It quietly takes a spoon and when I am out of spoons I will just… stop. And then you’ll wonder why your app doesn’t work for women, or why your soap dispenser is racist. Ronson actively makes this choice not to criticise the actions of any of the people he profiles but when they are part of a systemic problem with an industry, I find it really difficult to go along. In not saying anything, it’s hard not to draw a moral equivalence between making those jokes and pointing out they’re not okay.

But really, the whole thing feels artificial. Like The Butterfly Effect, the journey feels pre-ordained, as though he had all his candidates ready when the book was pitched to the publisher. There’s no organic sense of discovery or investigation. Instead of digging a little deeper, it’s just on to the next. There are plenty of branches which could have been taken - why do companies cave to public pressure instead of styling it out? Why are men allowed to be rehabilitated where women are not? Is this a natural evolution of the Dark Arts of spin? What role do news organisations play in framing the narrative? Instead of that, here’s another story about somebody who made a poor decision.

A book like this is always going to have a limited shelf life - the world moves on quickly and this was published in 2015. Attitudes change, technology changes. This holds up fairly well although one must wonder about the wisdom of attempting to rehabilitate one’s online reputation while agreeing to have an incident documented in a prominent journalist’s book.

Ronson is a very enjoyable writer who tells a good tale and I appreciated the self-examination he brought to the early chapters. I like his work, but I’d like it more if it felt like he was doing journalism instead of recounting an entertaining story.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

More of the Same - Circe by Madeline Miller

Like Miller’s previous work, The Song Of Achilles, Circe is a reimagining of a Greek myth. Circe, the daughter of Helios, best known for turning Odysseus’s men into pigs and keeping him on her island for a year.

We are beginning to experience something of a flood of greek retellings, no doubt due in part to Miller’s previous success. Like the others, Miller’s story is something of a rehabilitation for the character - rather than the beautiful sorceress of a thousand Pre-Raphaelite paintings who presides over her cauldron while impressively managing not to set her drapey skirt on fire, we have an immortal girl, vulnerable in her humanity, ill used by her family and eventually banished to the island of Aeaea.

Circe is an interesting subject who I largely know as a part of another person’s story, and Miller creates a terrific plot which illustrates just how wrong I am about that. Miller’s not just creating this witch, she is creating a pantheon of titans, gods and mortals. It is not just Circe’s story, it is the story of her sister, Pasiphae, mother of the minotaur; of her brother, Aeetes, protector of the golden fleece - at least until Medea, Circe’s niece assists in it’s thievery.

As far as mythology is concerned, Circe is a woman who sits alone on an island so she can be a small part of a great man’s story. Miller gives us a woman whose life and choices have led her to these moments. The abilities she has and the knowledge she imparts, she has earned.

But despite this, there’s no getting away from the fact Circe’s story is one of a woman who largely sits on an island. She is a character searching for a connection - at the beginning from her family, then from a man she loves, and then… well. It’s a story of character development rather than of action. At times, it feels a little bit as though things happen precisely to get away from the fact she is just sitting on an island.

The book is written in the same first person style as Miller’s first book, which, if I’m honest, I find rather annoying. Obviously, I’m being extremely unfair here; if I hadn’t read Achilles I wouldn’t have anything to complain about, but I have and I fear it shows Miller’s writing up. This is, after all, a first person narration - Circe and Patroclus are very different people and yet they have the same heavy fatalism of a story told from the point of when everything has already happened. I’m not the biggest fan of it, but I think it works better here, from this character.

As with Achilles, I’m also interested to know more about why Miller made the choices she did about the narrative. The Odysseus she has here is a very different creature to the one of the Trojan war and it’s an interesting change. I did not like it when I read it, and I felt it too much of a jolt from the character I had loved previously. Considering it now, I’m honestly not sure. Miller reframes what we think we know of the stories, but Odysseus’s part is small here and the reframing of his choices and motivations is fighting an uphill battle against a lifetime of what I think I know about him - including Patroclus’s account in Miller’s previous book. I find it jarring, but it certainly stands up to scrutiny.

I enjoyed this more than The Song Of Achilles largely thanks to the absence of a narrator swoonily swooning over things, but there’s not a great deal to pick between them. If you enjoyed on, by all means read the other but don’t expect something new and different from it.

4 stars (but only just)

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

For summer's parting sighs... - The Last Days of August by Jon Ronson

Having listened to and been utterly gripped by Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect, his investigations into the repercussions of Free Porn, it should surprise nobody that I immediately picked up this second podcast. Like The Butterfly Effect, it’s available for free for those with an Audible subscription. I believe it’s also available elsewhere at a price of gratis, but I have a cold and cannot be bothered to find out.

August Ames was one of the biggest porn stars in the business. Then she made a comment on Twitter which was deemed to be homophobic and, following the “social media pile on”, killed herself. Her husband, Kevin, took to the stage at an industry award ceremony to call out those he held responsible, as well as posting a screed on her still active Twitter account naming and shaming them for killing her.

So, obviously, trigger warning on this for the hows and the circumstances surrounding it. It’s factual, but it’s also graphic due to a discussion of whether she could have taken such an action unaided.

The Last Days of August is just as gripping as Ronson’s previous podcast, but unfortunately has many of the same problems as The Butterfly Effect, and his other works.

Initially it’s really quite difficult to get on board with this. August’s tweet concerned a shoot she had pulled out of. In it, she “warned” whoever had taken on the job that the male actor involved also did M/M scenes. She then went on to defend herself against criticism by saying she was worried about catching something. In my view, these tweets are most certainly in need of criticism. The concern that your gloveless partner may pass something on to you should not be limited to those who have partaken in hot boy action.

But Ronson is not a journalist who pushes back and there is no comment passed on what August actually said, only the very clear idea that the criticism and “pile-on” of her was wrong.

It is a difficult line to tread. Ronson enters the story soon after August’s death. He’s invited to the Adult Awards to see her husband make his stand. It would take a greater jerk than I to point out to the freshly grieving Kevin that August’s critics had a point, or that Kevin’s speech reframes the narrative as a “my body, my choice” situation (which it sounds like it was - she didn’t want to do the scene, she pulled out of the job), but I do feel it was remiss and damaging of Ronson to take the line in his narrative that the “pile-on” was the crime. He has a history with this, in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? for instance, and he often remains a defender of the called out and does not acknowledge those who lives are damaged by the actions of those who have been.

Really though, especially in those first couple of episode, I wonder should Ronson have been there at all. The Kevin we meet initially is angry and grieving and striking out in a very public way. The Kevin interviewed at the end - a year later for Ronson’s recording - is a very different person indeed. Obviously Kevin did not merely agree to be featured, he was eager to have Ronson be part of his quest to bring the people he held responsible to justice - he initiated contact. Before the big speech, to his credit Ronson raises his misgivings, despite not knowing what will be said, only having been reassured that it will be explosive.

Ronson’s story leads away from Kevin’s targets of vengeance, delving into Ames’ life before and after she came into the industry, and it is a sad one. It is one, I suspect, could be told about many of the industry performers.

Although I found the whole thing fascinating, I feel there are ethical questions to be raised of Ronson and his producer. A man who contacts you a month after his wife’s suicide asking you to do a story on the cyber-bullying which caused her death is a man who may not be in the best mind to make such a decision. And although the quest ends up not being the story of cyber-bullying Ronson expected to investigate, he follows it, sometimes to the distress of those involved. It is a gossipy, addictive account which I could not stop listening to, but at the same time I wonder if it was a humanitarian thing to do. I feel sad for Kevin, for a lot of complicated reasons, but mostly I feel sad for August.

I’m left feeling that there are more stories to be told about this industry and Ronson is somebody whose telling I would listen to, despite my misgivings. He does not ask questions, or provide answers, but he puts facts together in a way that is addictive and compelling.

4 stars

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

I swore I wouldn't request any more ARCs ever. I failed - The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

[I received this book as an ARC from the publisher for the cost of no monies. I thank them kindly for their unrivalled generosity. The Unlikely Adventures of The Shergill Sisters is out June 13th in the UK or now if you're an American.]

Rajni is the oldest of the Shergill sisters. She’s organised (bossy) and dutiful, so when her mother makes a deathbed request that she and her sisters pilgrimage across India to scatter her ashes, Rajni is the one to make it happen, despite her vow to never return there.

Jezmeen, a decade Rajni’s junior, has found herself unexpectedly free of work commitments over the coming weeks. A trip half-way across the world seems like a good as plan as any to let the fuss die down, re-group and work out how she’s going to re-launch her stalled acting career after what’s happened.

Sherina the youngest is quiet and good, a dutiful wife to her perfect husband, respectful to her in-laws. But their - and her husband’s - expectations of her are reaching a crisis point, and the time to make a decision is running out.

Billed as an Indian This Is Where I Leave You, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters is a really good read by an author who has the skill to write flawed characters I really connected with and never once felt like shrieking at. It sounds like such a simple thing but it really isn’t: kudos to Balli Kaur Jaswal for making it look so easy.

It’s an interesting read, rich with cultural detail deftly observed family dynamics. Rajni and Jezmeen dominate the first part of the story - they have plenty of problems with themselves and with each other. It allows Sherina to fade into their background, quiet, trying to get along with everybody, her problems unnoticed and unsuspected by her louder sisters.

However, I did find the premise and its implementation by Rajni a bit contrived. Each chapter is headed by their mother’s guidance notes, where they are to go, what they are to do, what she hopes they will get out of it. I am a big adherent of realism when it comes to found documents in stories so these notes seemed a bit too perfect, although they come into their own as the book goes on. Rajni’s dogged insistence that this show must go on to the end of the line lacked … something.

It also felt as though it lacked the space to breathe. Each of the sisters comes to the journey with their own baggage, they have their fractured relationship, there is What Happened when their mother died, and there is What Will They Go Home To. It’s quite a lot to cram in, and while the gradual unveiling of each story is done well, unspooling in ways I didn’t expect, the resolutions are hit and miss, feeling unexamined for a book which does family dynamics so well.

But, I did enjoy it, despite being unreasonably annoyed at a reference to cilantro (I await correction on what coriander is called in India). It’s funny at times although I’d pull a little short of calling it heartfelt. I think it has the bones to be a terrific film. I also feel like I’m going to get a lot more out of it on a second reading. If the blurb appeals, you should definitely read it.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

I prefer to think of it as Throne of Stupid - Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas

This is a terrible book. Really, really terrible. It’s terrible is a similar way to Keira Cass’s The Selection. Both have terrible protagonists, both have that terrible fan-fiction-y wish-fulfilment thing going on and both have found a wide audience who can read them with the enthusiasm every book hopes for rather than a facial expression suggesting the reader is thinking “Wow, this is a seriously terrible book”. So, really, my opinion doesn’t really matter here. Lots of people love Throne of Glass. I did not.

Celaena Sardothian is the greatest Assassin in the world. Everybody knows her name, and that she was caught and sent to the mines of Endovia. What everybody doesn’t know is that she’s a 17 year-old blonde who absolutely adores candy.

I was listening to the audiobook. I can’t get the narrator’s “Ohhhhh, how she ADORED candy!!!! *tinkling laugh*” line out of my head. (And while we’re here, Elizabeth Evans who narrates is very good, her rhyming of shone with bone aside, and I would absolutely listen to her again).

Celaena is offered a chance to get out. The King of Endovia needs a champion and intends to hold a competition to find one. Dorian, the crown prince, will enter Celaena as his candidate. If she wins, after four years she is free; if she loses, she’s back to the mines.

So, one of the things I hate about terrible YA: logic has no place in our premise.

If I wanted a king’s champion, what I would not do is spend the best part of a year having a bunch of people show me they know how to use a bow and arrow, climb a tower, or other sedate things. This is, presumably, an open vacancy. Most people would want to fill it quickly. It seems terribly unfair to expect your champion to deal with a massive backlog of work because you were procrastinating.

And it’s more unforgivable because during the whole competition people don’t generally progress to the next round because they are rubbish at whatever boring test they’ve been given, they get there because their opponents get crunchily eaten by something mysterious which seems to be roaming the castle by night - and thank heavens for that storyline because I dread to think how long we would have been whittling it down to the final four otherwise. Kicking them out one at a time, as the official rules seem to play it, does not add to the non-existent tension. Mind you, neither does “person you’ve never heard of is messily dead! Let’s all not do anything about it!”.

I’m also not even sure what a King’s Champion is supposed to do in this world. Usually, your champion is your best warrior for one-to-one combat. You can send them out and decide the whole battle thing with a single fight against your enemy’s champion and avoid everybody having to get their armour sticky. But the suggestion is that an assassin is going to be a good candidate here, so let’s roll with it, just like we’re going to roll with the idea that Celaena is actually an assassin, and a good one. This review would be three times this length otherwise.

Then there are the names. They’re like normal names, but special, because this is terrible YA. Maas is particularly irritating in this regard. It’s like being stuck in an episode of Sesame Street where today’s letter is K.

We have Kale (or Chaol as the text has him), hunky guard captain and totally not candidate for a lurve triangle, Cain, named opponent for Celaena’s new job, and Kaltain, teh evuls scheming lady-bitch who insta-hates Celaena (which is at least pronounced with an Sss). I am not good with names at the best of times; even when I could remember what they were I couldn’t remember which belonged with which trope. Then we have Celaena and Elena because rhyming names are totally the next big thing.

Celaena herself is awful. We are told repeatedly how interesting she is - she even has a relatable hobby! - but she is not interesting. She lives up to precisely none of the promise her description offers. She doesn’t even have proper angst.

At first this was terrible but entertaining, and I did appreciate the presence of a period because I am British and the kind of person who instead of sleeping wonders if any of the Districts ever send oats to their lady tributes when food is scarce. I also thought the premise had potential.

But the longer it went on, the more boring it became. One of the challenges of these kinds of books is keeping it interesting even though everybody knows Celaena is going to win the competition. There need to be stakes and this doesn’t have any. There’s no real investment in any of the side characters - even when we’re in their POV they’re thinking and talking about Celaena. (“When Poochie is not around, the other characters should say things like, ‘Where’s Poochie’”)

If somebody told me this got better in the rest of the series I would believe them. There’s plenty of potential especially once you actually give Celaena something to do other than lounge around reading books and looking attractive. However, I’m not going to find out because I would rather eat my own head.

1 star.

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