Monday, 30 May 2011

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding


DATE READ: April 2011 (audiobook)

NOTES: This book reads like fiction as it details the remarkable story of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. At the time of its publication it was still very much an unfinished story – Assange was awaiting extradition to Sweden, Bradley Manning was awaiting trial for espionage in US and repercussions of the leaks were still reverberating round the world. I did wonder if the Guardian reporters felt it important to lay out their side of the story so far….

They do this in unflinching detail. Their part in the story is told without hyperbole – their share with us their initial doubts and anxieties as well as their increasing frustrations in dealing with Assange. Julian Assange is revealed as an intriguing character. His computer skills are brilliant, he is a driven man in his campaign for freedom of information but is also egotistical and arrogant. Leigh and Harding reveal how he often changed his mind about future plans and acted contrary to agreements made about publication. To their credit they recount these events objectively and calmly (but I bet they raged in private!)

It will be interesting how the WikiLeaks story will be viewed by future historians. The published Afghan war logs revealed the existence of US death squads, the Iraq files told of the torture of prisoners and of civilian murders. The huge release of thousands of diplomatic cables at the end of last year caused a sensation – the current uprisings in North Africa can be directly linked to the reaction to these cables.

At the time of writing this review (May 2011) things have gone rather quiet on the Wikileaks front. But Hilary Clinton’s fury is unabated and she is demanding Assange’s extradition. Bradley Manning, the soldier who downloaded the files, is in solitary confinement in gaol awaiting trial for espionage and a threatened 55 year sentence. His fragile mental state will cut very little ice with his accusers.

A fascinating and well written book – but it will probably need to be updated in a few years hence.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift


DATE READ: May 2011

NOTES: Graham Swift is a very skilful writer. In Wish You Were Here he is terrific at evoking atmosphere – both physical and emotional. He describes the bleakness of an out-of-season seaside caravan park, the strange formality of repatriating the bodies of soldiers and the hard life of a dairy farmer. In particular the grief (bordering on madness) felt by Jack about the loss of his younger brother is powerfully written.

This novel is less successful with the characters. Apart from being not very sympathetic (which may not matter in the long run) some of their actions and attitudes were not wholly believable. There is no real explanation for Tom choosing never to communicate with his brother after he joins the army. Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack to his brother’s funeral is similarly inexplicable.

Wish You Were Here shifts in time between points of the past and present. Sometimes this could be a bit confusing – especially when he further introduces passages detailing not “what happened” but “what might have happened”.

The ending is tense and I wanted to find out what was going to happen. While this book has many positive points I sadly found it relentlessly depressing and gloomy.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Towards the End of Morning by Michael Frayn


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: I had forgotten how funny Michael Frayn’s writing could be. Towards End of the Morning is a comic novel set in a newspaper office in the 1960s – a cross between The Observer and The Guardian. Much of the story is very funny – the pre-TV programme meal could have been straight out of Monty Python – but there are also some dark undertones of ambition, job security and jealousy. Frayn is very prescient about celebrity culture and the middle-class angst about getting one’s children into the “right” school.

In many ways this book is “a blast from the past”. Mrs Mounce recommends the wearing of a roll-on, suitcases have no wheels, flat-dwellers shared a bathroom, and it was not the done thing to have your girlfriend stay overnight. All that, and the non-stop smoking and drinking make it very much a period piece.

An odd thing is how little work anyone seems to be doing…..I did wonder how any newspaper actually got printed. There are some sympathetic characters but others are appalling. Comparisons have been made with Waugh’s Scoop – and rightly so.

Great fun.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: This book languished on my “to be read” shelf for many months. I had heard good reports of it but was put off by its enormous size: 830 pages of small print! However I so enjoyed the first episode of The Crimson Petal and the White on TV that I decided to make a start…..

What a brilliant book! Right from the start we are swept up into the Victorian London world of Sugar as she makes her way through life. She works as a prostitute but is bright, articulate and quick to take advantage of anything (or anyone) that comes her way. But at the same time she remains a mystery. Is she the tart with the heart of gold or the whore with her eye on the main chance. One of her customers, William Rackham, becomes enamoured with her and she seizes on the chance to escape from her depraved surroundings. But again we are never sure whether she feels any real affection for William.

There are some wonderful larger-than-life characters. Mrs Castaway is the abusive brothel keeper who is mother to Sugar. William’s brother Henry has rejected the family perfume business and is hoping to become a minister of the church and rescue lost souls. He loves the widowed Mrs Fox but is incapable of being open with his feelings for her. She in turn is portrayed as a somewhat comical creature at the beginning of the book as she attempts to convince young prostitutes to give up their life of sin and turn to Christ and honest work. But as story progresses she becomes a rather fine human being who is motivated to do good works. And then there is Agnes, William’s wife – na├»ve, abused, depressed, addicted and anorexic. Poor thing, what fate awaits her?

The whole is a wonderful mix of class and sexual politics. It has been compared to Dickens – this is how Dickens may have written if he was not constrained by Victorian censorship. There are echoes of Our Mutual Friend, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair and Middlemarch.

Some people will be disappointed by the ambivalent ending. I loved it – it is very much within the spirit of the book. Michel Faber takes us by the hand and leads us into this world. But he doesn’t tell us everything – some things are best left to our own imaginations.


Sunday, 1 May 2011

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: Shep Knacker has a dream of leaving New York and setting up home in some distant place. He plans to lead a simple life with the help of his substantial nest-egg acquired from the sale of his business. However his dream is his alone and not shared by his wife and children. His research tells him that an ideal place to spend his “Afterlife” would be an island paradise off the Tanzanian coast. But his determination to set off on this adventure is shattered by the news of his wife’s cancer.

From this point disastrous events occur. All Shep’s former financial decisions have been wrong and he is now caught up in battles with a third-rate health insurance company that will only pay a portion of the astronomonical fees. His wife Glynis is put on a range of experimental (and expensive) drugs and month by month Shep sees his nest-egg diminishing. He seems to love Glynis rather than like her and an inner resentment builds up. Shep is a decent character but is generally considered a “soft touch” by his whole family. As well as supporting an ailing wife he has a son at an expensive school, a daughter being subsidised through university, a sister who is too creative to actually earn money and a father who despises the monetary system but expects to be assisted by his son.

His long term friend Jackson has a disabled daughter suffering from a horrific genetic syndrome. Jackson is often filled with rage and has frequent rants about how the government is ripping everyone off. He is convinced that people who works hard and pay their taxes are made fools of by both the federal government and by idle scroungers.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But actually this is a really compelling read. I was enthralled, horrified and angry in turn. Sometimes I wanted to scream: “Shep – get a grip!” By halfway through this book I expected the ending to be really depressing. But amazingly it is not. Lionel Shriver actually gives us a redemptive and (dare I say) uplifting conclusion.

(This book should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks more privatisation in our Health Service would be a good thing!)