Why ‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone’ is my favourite book of 2019

This year I have read the stories of spies, terrorists, serial killers and generals. Yet the book that had me flipping pages the fastest mostly takes place in an ordinary office in suburban LA, where regular people receive standard pyschotherapy.

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb – a TV producer and journalist turned clinical psychologist – examines the purpose of therapy and how it works. However, it is not a monograph. Instead, Gottlieb conveys this message through the interlinked stories of four of her patients, along with her own experiences in therapy.

Gottlieb spent most of her TV career working on ER, so knows how to craft drama. So she chooses a case with plenty of mysteries and revelations to serve as the spine of the book. That allows her to create cliffhangers and deliver emotional gut punches.

However, the real appeal is the way Gottlieb recreates the intense empathy inherent in therapy on the page, drawing her readers into the lives of other people and then showing us how people who seem utterly lost can, with the right help, find a path to contentment.

Hat-tip: The book was flagged up to me by YANSS and Longform

The rest of my top ten of the year:

10. Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren

9. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

8. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre

7. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

6. Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott

5. Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma

4. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

3. Yes to Europe by Robert Saunders

2. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

The best things I’ve read recently (27/11/17)

Can China find aliens? Can the DPRK survive South Korean pop culture? Can Dan Brown write for toffee?

Dan Brown is a very bad writer by Matthew Walther (The Week)

“The novel’s most crucial scene is the stunning almost-but-not-quite-too-late moment when, having reached as far as he can into the depths of his (as is repeatedly impressed upon us) encyclopedic memory, it dawns upon Langdon, purportedly a member of the Harvard humanities faculty, that “Blake was not only an artist and illustrator … Blake was a prolific poet.” Bingo? This is like saying that John Carpenter is not only a composer of synthesizer music, he is also the director of such classic films as Halloween and The Thing.”

N Korean defection sheds light on influence of pop culture by Bryan Harris (FT)

‘US president Donald Trump has embarked on a strategy of “maximum pressure”, leaving “all options on the table”. North Korea, however, is demonstrating resilience to comprehensive international sanctions, while the estimated death toll of any military intervention makes the prospect unfeasible.

The alternative path for some watchers of the reclusive nation is to focus on its people — particularly the younger generation, who are increasingly familiar with foreign movies and music.

“This is such a point of leverage that is being underutilised,” says Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps scores of North Koreans defect every year.

“There is so much focus now on security problems and harsh rhetoric but ultimately that is playing North Korea’s game — and they are very well-practised. It is the soft underbelly of media, culture and the economy where South Korea, the US and the international community has massive advantages over North Korea.”

Analysts say the first step is to improve the quality and quantity of radio transmissions — a prospect that was boosted when the BBC Korea service began in September.

“We need a more diverse array of tailored media content for North Koreans,” said Mr Park, who contrasted the lacklustre efforts to break North Korea’s information blockade with those made to bring down the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. “We used to be better at this stuff.”’

What happens if China makes first contact? by Ross Anderson (the Atlantic)

“How would he reply to a message from a cosmic civilization? [Famous Chinese Science Fiction writer Liu Cixin] said that he would avoid giving a too-detailed account of human history. “It’s very dark,” he said. “It might make us appear more threatening.” In Blindsight, Peter Watts’s novel of first contact, mere reference to the individual self is enough to get us profiled as an existential threat. I reminded Liu that distant civilizations might be able to detect atomic-bomb flashes in the atmospheres of distant planets, provided they engage in long-term monitoring of life-friendly habitats, as any advanced civilization surely would. The decision about whether to reveal our history might not be ours to make.

Liu told me that first contact would lead to a human conflict, if not a world war. This is a popular trope in science fiction. In last year’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival, the sudden appearance of an extraterrestrial intelligence inspires the formation of apocalyptic cults and nearly triggers a war between world powers anxious to gain an edge in the race to understand the alien’s messages. There is also real-world evidence for Liu’s pessimism: When Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast simulating an alien invasion was replayed in Ecuador in 1949, a riot broke out, resulting in the deaths of six people. “We have fallen into conflicts over things that are much easier to solve,” Liu told me.”

Tweets of the week

Podcast of the week

Analysis examines the premium voters seem to be placing on ‘authenticity’ and why this is problematic. I would perhaps go with a slightly different conclusion than the show does and say that ‘authenticity’ is functionally a synonym for ‘entertaining’ and that this is a terrible criteria by which to choose leaders.

Video of the week

The good writer Phillip and the wishful-thinker Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman (review)

Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the gospels is always interesting but reveals his view of religion to be confused.

Chances are it won’t be news to you that Phillip Pullman knows how to tell a story. And that includes telling arguably the most important story of all: the life and time of Jesus Christ.

Only in Pullman’s version there is no Jesus Christ. Instead there is Jesus and Christ, two brothers who between them create the Christian religion as we know it today. Jesus is a righteous prophet of social justice, whilst Christ is the unreliable chronicler of Jesus’ life and message. Jesus is disdainful of all authority including that of God (whose existence he seems dubious of). Christ, by contrast, believes that for the message to have an impact it must be imbued with the supernatural and provide a justification for establishing an institution to promote it.

This is a neat conceit and Pullman delivers it well. Most impressively he does this by pastiching not the grandiose poetry of the King James Bible but the dry functional prose of the more recent translation like the NIV. Despite this constraint Pullman still makes his telling highly readable and his version almost invariably has more literary merit than the original.

Where it falls down is in his theology. This is basically a didactic story: he his advocating for Jesus the carrier of a true Christian message against Christ its distorter. Jesus believes in the things Pullman does (compassion for others, political radicalism and atheism) whilst Christ is the standard bearer for organised religion and divinity. He’s also a liar who skulks in the shadows and covertly consorts with nefarious figures.

This is a wildly implausible reading of the Gospels. There is little historical sense in seeing Jesus’ divinity as something that was posthumously foisted on a human teacher. The problem with such a reading is that in the earliest Christian sources we have (Paul’s letters) already treat Jesus as God. The Gospels which introduce us to Jesus the man were written later. Thus if one is going to dismiss any part of Jesus as a fabrication then it should logically be his earthly deeds not his purported divine nature.

And there is no reasonable basis for supposing that he was an atheist. If he had been, then arriving at our current version of the Gospels would have required not just embellishment but a complete fabrication. Jesus preaches loving others a lot but discusses God even more and intimately connects the two. Christianity without some sense of the supernatural and transcendent would be a desiccated husk.

That’s mostly beside the point though. This isn’t what Pullman is saying did happen but his way of discussing what is valuable in the Christian story and what isn’t. The problem is that where he sees a simple lesson, there is actually a tension. Pullman is of course right to detect a scepticism of religious authorities in Jesus’ message – it’s hard to miss though plenty of people manage it – and there is of course a tradition inside as well as outside Christianity of regarding the authoritarian hierarchies of organisations like the Catholic Church with horror.

However, that’s not to say that religious organisations are without their merits. I’ve already quoted the sociologist Tom Shakespeare on this blog explaining why religion is valuable and in this context it bears repeating:

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself. Because religion is a collective practice, it enables us to learn from others around us, and from a history of sincere and disciplined examination of the problems of life – a history which is sometimes called the Wisdom Traditions. Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly.

Putting this principle into practice, Shakespeare joined the Quakers. While I have many issues with the ‘Friends’ in no meaningful sense can they be accused of authoritarianism. They are democratically organised and have used “though shall decide for yourself” as a slogan. Being organised like that has its disadvantages; there are things which a centralised institution like the Catholic Church can do which the Quakers can’t. But there clearly are a plurality of different ways of setting up religious institutions. Therefore, it is wrong to suppose as Pullman does that to institutionalise religion necessarily means turning it into something authoritarian.

The problem with Pullman’s atheist Jesus is that he is too simple a creature to reflect these kind of nuances. He is just a blank slate onto which Pullman projects largely platitudinous exhortations to be good and righteous. The Jesus of the Bible is far more interesting and enlightening because he is all about paradoxes: law and morality, mercy and justice, tradition and revelation to name but a few. He is himself a paradox. He is God and man. Jesus and Christ.

Can you recommend me some right-wing books to read?

I’ve just finished reading have been Peter Singer’s introduction to Marx and the book I read before that was Noam Chomsky writing about Anarchism. Now I’m feeling the need for some balance. So I was hoping that you dear readers might be able to recommend what right-wing books are most worth reading.

I’m looking for things which will challenge my liberal centrist assumptions, so I’m probably looking for things that are cogent and reasonable rather than shrill or ad hominem.

The Fat Controller was orginally the Fat Director

Fat_Controller_TTTE_1The Isles of Sodor had to adjust to nationalisation too

As a toddler watching Thomas the Tank Engine, I was blissfully unaware of the intrusions of twentieth century history into this apparently blissful world. However, intrude it did. In the first two books, Sir Topham Hatt was known as ‘the Fat Director.’ The books author the Rev W.V Awdry rechristened him ‘the Fat Controller’ following the nationalisation of the railways in 1948.

Nor was this Sir Hatt’s only link with politics. Awdry made it part of his fictional biography that the Fat Controller had married into the family of the Liberal MP for Sodor East.

It is worth noting that the series reflection of the politics of its era is far from universally welcome. Slate author Jessica Roake finds it all rather suspect:

[T]he conservatism of Thomas and Friends is not the conservatism of America. Key to the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mythos in the United States is the notion that anyone can rise to the top with hard work and initiative. The Thomas series glories instead in true “white man’s burden” style British imperialism. Our hero, Thomas, and his friends jockey for positions just below that of the bullying aristocrat Sir Topham Hatt but never seek to rise to his level. The stern, dour little Englishman in top hat and tails dangles meaningless honors like getting to “carry the most special special” to divide and conquer the trains.

The world’s largest book fair

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Fellow bookworms: you still have one more day to get to Kolkata (formerly in Calcutta) in the India state of West Bengal. Because tomorrow is the final day of the world’s largest book fair. As the New York Times reported last week:

Organized by the Publishers and Booksellers’ Guild at the Milan Mela Ground, the annual book fair, which begins Wednesday at noon and runs through Feb. 9, is the largest retail book fair in the world and an important event in Kolkata’s literary and cultural scene.

The book fair, open from noon to 8 p.m., will include 770 stalls spread over 18 acres (800,000 square feet), offering books in English, Hindi, Bengali and many other languages. Publishers from 29 countries are participating. From Bangladesh alone, 25 publishers will be in attendance.

About 200 stalls, housed in the Little Magazine Zone, are dedicated to small magazines — independent, experimental and noncommercial publications.

Peru is this year’s focal theme country, marking the golden jubilee of India-Peru diplomatic relations. The Peru pavilion presents an elaborate exhibition on the country’s culture and history in the form of labyrinth. The exhibition leads visitors through different aspects of Peruvian life, ending with Machu Picchu at the center.

The Kolkata Language and Literary Festival begins Thursday with a ceremony presided by Mr. Tharoor. At the festival, which runs through Saturday, the noted Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay will introduce the Bengali translation of Mr. Tharoor’s book “The Great Indian Novel” by Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey.

Some hypotheses as to the mystery of the resurgent sleuth

Benedict-Cumberbatch-playing-Sherlock-Holmes-left-and-Martin-Freeman-playing-Dr-John-Watson-from-the-new-series-of-2676383

*Warning contains spoilers for series 1 and 2 of Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows*

Sherlock is back. This is true both in the sense that:

1)      a new series of the BBC drama starts this evening (YIPEE!!!);

2)      even though the last of Conan Doyle’s story was published in 1927, Holmes is popping up in an awful lot of culture.

At the present moment there are:

  • Gatiss and Moffat’s series for the BBC staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
  • Guy Ritchie’s films Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. A third one is apparently on the way. These are essentially Victorian set action comedies.
  • The NBC series Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson. Like Sherlock, it brings Conan Doyle’s characters into the present day. In this version Holmes is solving mysteries in New York while recovering from drug addiction. Oh and Watson is a women.
  • Ian McKellen will play an elderly Holmes in an upcoming film called a Slight Trick of the Mind.
  • Series like the Mentalist and Law and Order: Criminal Intent that take their basic model from Holme’s adventures.

Furthermore, whereas previous TV and film versions of these stories tended to be stale pieces of Victoriana, recent versions tend to be extremely loose adaptations that nonetheless feel very true to the spirit of the originals. Writers seem to have rediscovered the energy, excitement and mischief that Conan Doyle injected into his stories.

This all raises the question of why Holmes seems to have so much cultural currency at the present moment. Here in no particular order are some theories of mine:

Copycats

It’s not exactly a secret that the creative industries can be strikingly unimaginative. So any successful project seems to result in a herd of imitators.

There seems to have been some of this going on with Holmes’ resurgence. Elementary seems to be a rip-off of Sherlock. In fact, the BBC claimed that CBS had approached them about an Americanised Sherlock, and only made Elementary when they didn’t get permission to do that.

However, that’s not the whole story. The BBC series and the Ritchie films seem to have arisen independently.

1900 is here again (1): it’s scary out there

Holmes’ adventures take place between 1880 and 1914. Chronologically speaking, the final story is His Last Bow which sees Holmes match wits with a German spymaster on the eve of WWI. He is thus a product of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods when an apparently flourishing European civilisation slid towards the catastrophe of World War.

A recent Economist article noted that looking at 1914 and 2014:

the parallels remain troubling. The United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power.

We could also find parallels in the way turn of the century Britain was menaced by Anarchist and Irish terrorism.

It is striking the extent to which modern adaptors home in on these themes. For example, in Sherlock, there is Mycroft’s macabre plan to thwart a terrorist attack on a passenger plane. The first Ritchie film features religious extremists planning to attack parliament with chemical weapons. And in its sequel, Moriarty orchestrates terrorist attacks that aim to push the great powers into a war.

1900 is here again (2): London’s back

I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that Ritchie could go from directing films about present day London gangsters to ones about the Edwardian sleuth living a century beforehand.

Holmes’ London was the hub of the largest empire in history. It was a dynamic, crowded and divided place. In short, it was an exciting city and a great setting for detective stories.

Conan Doyle, a great supporter of Britain’s colonial project frequently uses London’s imperial and global character in his stories. The narrative arch of a lot of Holmes’ adventures could be summarised as: someone commits a dreadful sin somewhere in the world and flees to London to escape it but it catches up with them in the UK and face a reckoning. Holmes then has to investigate the aftermath.

The global cast of villains that Holmes faces include the Mafia, the Klu Klux Klan, the nascent Mormon Church, the Molly Macguires, Australian bush rangers and a poison dart wielding dwarf from the Andaman Islands.

After World War I, London became increasingly suburbanised, the rampant inequality was tamed by the welfare state and it declined as an international city. In short, it ceased to the metropolis Holmes roamed.

But now that London is back. It’s a global city once again, growing much faster than the rest of the UK, it’s the natural habitat of the superrich global elite and a result massively unequal, and also home to an extraordinary cornucopia of migrants. It’s once again a city worthy of Holmes’ attention.

We can see Holmes think

Both Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes, rely on a great deal of technical tricks to take us inside Holmes mind: rapid cuts, bullet time, words on screen etc. Many of these techniques were until quite recently either not available or harder to use with such regularit,. It’s hard to remember now but the way CSI dramatised forensic science was initially quite ground breaking and Holmes’ modern incarnations have to a great extent been following in its wake.

Being able to go into Holmes mind has the added advantage of freeing up Watson to do more than have exposition delivered at him.

Bromance

Alongside the obvious themes of deduction and crime fighting, Conan Doyle’s stories are in a large part about the friendship between Holmes and Watson. This has lead quite a number of people to wonder if the intense companionship between the two men might indicate they were gay. I have always found this idea rather aggravating because to me it has always felt like a product of our collective inability to think about relationships in anything other than sexual terms.

One of the many strengths of Sherlock is how it uses our insecurities around male bonding for comic effect. I would speculate that this is possible to do because these fears are receding: as we become less paranoid about homosexuality, exploring homosociality becomes safer. Holmes and Watson are likely easier characters to portray when society is either largely unaware of homosexuality or largely accepting of it. In the decades between the two problems may lie.

As a side note, this theme seems to persist even when Watson is a woman. Elementary executive producer Carl Bevan has said of the relationship between his iterations of the characters that it’s

a bromance, but one of the bros just happens to be a woman.  He said that from the very beginning and I think it’s really an apt description.  There’s this idea that a man and a woman can’t be together on a show especially without needing to be together sexually or in love or whatever, and this is really about the evolution of a friendship and how that happens.  Watching that should be as much the story of this show as the mysteries that you see week in and week out about who killed who.  We love that and those stories will be great, but the mystery of this relationship and how the friendship comes into being, that should be something that draws people in every week, too.

Brave New World seems prophetic; it’s not

Huxley’s masterpiece is better at seeming prophetic than actually seeing the future

63e3aeaf06a5039c5bba75d3ce58050c“In 1931, when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time. The completely organised society, the scientific caste system, the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning, the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of a chemically induced happiness, the orthodoxies drummed in by the nightly courses of sleep-teaching – these things were coming all right, but not in my time, not even in the time of my grandchildren. I forget the exact date of the events recorded in Brave New World; but it was somewhere in the sixth or seventh century A.F. (after Ford)….Twenty-Seven years later, in this third quarter of the twentieth century A.D., and long before the end of the first century A.F., I feel a good deal less optimistic than when I was writing Brave New World. The prophecies made in 1931 and coming true much sooner than I thought they would.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958)

While listening to the audiobook of Brave New World (BNW), I kept running into a problem. Listening to music on an MP3 player or spotify has accustomed me to having a virtually unlimited supply of it. Therefore, whenever I get somewhat indifferent to a piece of music I skip to the next one. This habit becomes rather an irritant when listening to an audiobook because I’m regularly skipping to the next chapter and then having to spool back to find my place. This technologically induced impatience is ironic given that one of Huxley’s themes is a society that has dispensed with delayed gratification.

BNW does this. It has an uncanny ability to speak to our contemporary fears. It can be related to any number of current debates: consumerism, feminism, genetic engineering, secularism, permissiveness, technology and the role of the arts and humanities. But that doesn’t make it an accurate prediction.

When Huxley came back to the ideas in BNW in non-fiction form with Brave New World Revisited, he identified two trends that he thought were pushing the world towards dystopia: overorganisation and overpopulation.

Huxley associates overorganisation with Fordism and the regimentation and standardisation it implies. He subscribes to the thesis of  William Whyte’s “the Organization Man” about how workers sacrificed their individuality to the needs of their firms. BNW essentially imagines these principles extrapolated from the corporate world to society as a whole. Humans are literally manufactured in batches to fill a preordained role, and autonomy is systematically suppressed.

However, the reality turned out differently. Rather than becoming the organising principle of society, Fordism is in retreat. Mass production now co-exists with an increasing number of firms that focus on producing goods tailored for specific consumer tastes. Many companies especially in finance and technology actively seek out not ‘Organization Men’ but misfits who’ll bring unconventional thinking to problems. Ford’s city of Detroit is now a bankrupt mess.

Huxley seems to think that overpopulation is the route by which overorganisation would come about. That a highly powerful and controlling state would be needed to prevent unchecked population growth from leading to ecological disaster. He feels that no other kind of government can prevent people having large families. But again history has not turned out as Huxley expected.

Population increases seem to be leveling off of their own accord. Family sizes have been dropping for decades. While the number of humans on the planet is still rising, this is driven not by parents having more children but by there being more parents to have children.  We are seeing the aftereffects of people in the past having large families as the offspring of those prodigious breeders now reach child bearing age themselves. We are regulating our own fertility without the need for a totalitarian state. In fact, many more recent dystopias like the Handmaid’s Tale or Children of Men feature the reverse kind of demographic challenge – a population in decline.

This is not to say to say that Huxley’s predictions will not come to pass. The future is unpredictable after all. However, I see no reason to predict that it will. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a messages worth listening to. Rather we should see it as what Huxley originally intended it to be: a satire on the utopian novels of men like H.G Wells, a warning that ‘progress’ can move us towards hell as well as heaven.

Orwell in Panem: What the Hunger Games owes to 1984

*Spoiler warning: this article reveals lots of plot points from all three Hunger Games books and 1984*

big-brother-1984

Now that it is venerable enough to merit inclusion on school curriculums and lists of the greatest ever novels, it’s easy to forget the horror and revulsion it initially generated. During the broadcast of a 1954 BBC adaptation of the story, a 42 year old housewife housewife named Beryl Merfin was so disturbed that the shock killed her. And an Early Day Motion was tabled in parliament decrying “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programs…to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.”

There’s something similar in the reaction to the Hunger Games. Many are appalled by the violence it shows or by the premise of teenagers fighting to the death.

It is strange that connections are not drawn between these two dark dystopian novels more often. Fans and admirers of the Hunger Games tend to locate Collin’s inspiration in the classics or Lord of the Flies. While her detractors claim she ripped off Battle Royale. However, I’d suggest that 1984 seems like a significant influence as well. Especially given that Collins is apparently a fan.

So where can we see this influence?

The Brutality

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley conceived of a regime that ruled not through fear but by providing its population with a string of amusements to keep them perpetually distracted.

That’s emphatically not how President Snow maintains his power. He relies instead on a rather Orwellian dose of terror.  While the Hunger Games may be set in a land whose name comes from the latin phrase ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and circuses) there is no sense its rulers are trying to buy off their people or earn their affection. Rather it is the threat of violence from Panem’s paramilitary ‘peacekeepers’ that keeps them in line.

While Games themselves may at least in part have been inspired by gladiatorial games and are occasionally described by characters as being meant to serve as a ‘distraction’, that doesn’t seem to be their real purpose. Rather they are a commemoration of a failed rebellion against the Capital and an implicit warning not to try again.

Nuclear Weapons

1984 was written at a time when nuclear weapons were a new phenomenon and is in part Orwell’s attempt to work through their consequences. As David Aaronovitch explains:

“Orwell saw the beginnings of a…carve-up of the globe into superpowers and told friends that this was what initially set him going on the novel.

Less than two years later, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Japan. In an essay for Tribune magazine called You and the Atomic Bomb, Orwell argued that the A-Bomb threatened to bring into being….[a] world of super states governed by totalitarian hierarchies of managers.

It’s often missed that Nineteen Eighty-Four is set a few decades after an atomic war. The managers administering the book’s three super states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, have tacitly agreed not to try to destroy each other but to continue forever in a kind of cold war.

Indeed, it was Orwell who coined the phrase “cold war” in that 1945 essay.”

A similar situation emerges in the Hunger Games where the Capital and the rebellious District 13 are locked in a state of mutually assured destruction because during the rebellion each acquired part of Panem’s nuclear weapons stockpile. That creates a situation where the Capital can exert its control over the remaining districts. Until Katniss shows up that is…..

The Names of Places

Real places have acquired impersonal nomenclatures. So Britain becomes ‘airstrip one’ and West Virginia morphs into ‘District 12.’

They can make you hate the one you love

Orwell dramitises the Thoughtpolice’s power and the fear they can evoke with their ultimate torture instrument, Room 101, by showing how they get the lovers Winston and Julia to betray each other. Confronted with his personal nightmare of having his face eaten by rats, Winston cries out that “torture Julia instead.”

In Mockingjay, the final Hunger Games book, Peeta whose adoration for Katniss has been unwavering throughout the trilogy is hijacked (i.e. brainwashed) to hate her with a murderous ferocity.

The Tarnished Revolution

Ok, this is from Animal Farm not 1984 but I’ll bet that if Collins is a fan of the later book, she’ll have read the former too.

Both books feature revolutions that betray their ideals in very fundamental and symbolic ways: Napolean and the other pigs start walking on two legs or President Alma Coin’s proposal to continue the Hunger Games with tributes from the Capital.

Dystopias old and new

When young adult fiction is drawing on ideas from a classic political fable, the distinction between high and low culture really does not make a great deal of sense.

I do wonder how long debates over the threat of totalitarianism will remain dominated by the language of 1984. There’ve been a huge number of dystopias since: Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner, the Handmaid’s Tale and now the Hunger Games. I wonder how long it will be until they begin providing at least part of the vocabulary we use to talk about tyranny.

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt – review

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A man being entombed in his own body sounds like the premise for a horror novel. However, this book is the autobiography of a historian.

Tony Judt’s Postwar is one of my favourite books. An epic history of Europe since World War II that spans the Iron Curtain and a massive range of historical fields. All in some of the most brilliant non-fiction writing I’ve ever come across. Judt uses that skill to evoke his life and his descent into the hell of amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This horrendous degenerative disease robs its victims of the ability to use their body but leaves the mind intact. Judt authored this book in the time between losing the use of his hands and therefore the ability to write independently but before the “diaphragm muscles can longer pump sufficient air across your vocal chords to furnish them with the variety of pressure to express meaningful words.” The book is thus dictated and its title is a reference to a memory mnemonic that Judt uses to memorise refined text he wishes to have noted down.

Judt posits that this combination of a malfunctioning body with an unaffected mind produces a state particularly conducive to ‘reflecting on the past, present and future.’ And that is in essence the ‘Memory Chalet’: Judt’s reflections on his life. Being both a historian of post-war Europe and a post-war European, he uses his own life as a source to understand the period in which he lives. Of particular interest are his insights into the Sixties which are sharp, both in the sense of being both insightful and lacerating.

Despite his intellect and his humour, one gets the impression that was probably a difficult person. Nonetheless, there are at least two things about his life that I find inspiring. Firstly, rather than using his deep reflection as a hunt for some identity, he relishes in the cosmopolitanism of being an English secular Jewish Francophile Czech speaking New Yorker. Secondly, that his reaction to his death sentence was not to despair but to carry on thinking and writing.

What might seem like flaws in most books, simply don’t in this one. For example, Judt’s combination of European social democracy and English conservatism (with a very small c) make him nostalgic for institutions that we are best rid of like grammar schools and British Rail but this is autobiography not history. What we have is the distillation of a brilliant mind complete with its prejudices and frailties. This is Judt’s parting gift to the world is an opportunity to see into the thinking of a great historian.

Judt succumbed to ALS in August 2010. Rest in peace and thank you for the lessons.