Monday, December 29, 2014

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2014)

Christmas is a stressful, tension-filled time of year for me. I hate the crowds, I hate all the socialising I have to do and I hate the pressure that comes with the compulsory annual gift-giving to people you only speak to five times a year. That said, once the horror of Christmas passes, then the nicest week of the year arrives - the time between Christmas and New Years. Lots of people are off work so the streets are empty. Everyone's all fed up with mass gatherings so nights out tend to only be with small groups (my favourite type of gatherings!). The weather's usually not too hot but also not too cold and the days are perfect for one of my favourite pastimes...reading a book! True to form, this year I have read two books in this week and they were both absolute crackers.

The first is the one I'm talking about today - So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson (every time I type this I put in a "h". Why not John? Apologies in advance if I miss one in this piece). I'd heard of Ronson because of two of his previous books: The Men Who Stare at Goats (adapted into a fairly average film starring George Clooney) and The Psychopath Test: A  Journey Through the Madness Industry. While I liked the ideas of these books, I'd never actually got around to reading them and (honestly) I probably wouldn't have ever read a Ronson book unless prompted, which I was this year when I received his most recent one. It is an interesting book and a great holiday read - not too heavy but not too fluffy either. Let me explain.

In 2012, Jon Ronson's online identity was kind of stolen when a bunch of academics created a bot on twitter (@Jon_Ronson) that tweeted like someone who was a crazy, fusion-food dildo-owning inspired version of Jon. His friends started following that account and Ronson got increasingly upset by it. In an filmed interview with the academics, he pleaded with them to take down the bot. They refused. The interview that was later uploaded to YouTube and the comments vociferously, even violently, condemned the academics' actions. Effectively, the internet shamed them into discontinuing their work and discontinuing the bot; they took down @Jon_Ronson soon after. Ronson was pleased to be part of what he saw as right being done (as he says, "Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right.) He then noticed that what happened to him was part of a wave of public shamings: the author of a homophobic Daily Mail article was punished; a fitness company was forced to change their policy when they were shamed after refusing to let an unemployed couple cancel their gym membership. Ronson hypothesised that, after a lull of 180 years, we were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. He vowed to investigate the next public modern shaming, to "investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs."

This book recounts that journey and the answer is both not very and very very good. Ronson looks at examples like Jonah Lehrer, who I wasn't aware of but who had been very publicly shamed for self-plagiarism and using fake quotes in his books. While it's possible to argue that Lehrer was justly exposed for years worth of deceitful behaviour, Ronson also looks at other situations where an off-colour or inappropriate joke was (rightly) deemed to be offensive but where the public shaming was vicious and almost destroyed the lives of those who were shamed (examples include Justine Sacco, who sent off a racist tweet before getting on an eight-hour flight, only to be met at her destination by someone to escort of her off the plane, her tweet having caused a really disturbing Twitter frenzy of people all around the world waiting for her flight to land to see her publicly berated, and Linsey Stone, who was fired after posting a photo on Facebook of her mock-disrespecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). While Ronson notes that yes, their actions were inappropriate, the result of the shaming was catastrophic; at the time of writing the book Sacco is still unemployed and Stone was unable to leave her house for a year.

Public shamings were phased out not, as Ronson assumes, because people were moving from towns to the city, but they were deemed too brutal to continue. After reading about the effects of public shamings today, I, like Ronson, will not participate in one again. This was a very interesting book: 4 stars.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Us by David Nicholls (2014)

The narrator of Us is Douglas Peterson, a bioscientist who is woken in the middle of the night by his wife, Connie, telling him she thinks she would like to separate once their 17-year-old son, Albie, leaves for university. Douglas loves Connie, deeply and sincerely, and is unable to cope with that news. He says: "I found the idea of life without her quite unthinkable, unthinkable in the truest sense; I could not picture a future without her by my side" (p379). However, before she leaves Connie and Douglas plan on going on a Grand Tour with Albie, travelling around continental Europe by train. Douglas has a vague plan to use the tour to convince Connie not to leave - he's not sure how but he is convinced he can do it. As the family begin their journey, events in the current day are interspersed with flashbacks recounting the story of Connie and Douglas from his point of view, from the night they met through to the current day.

Us was written by David Nicholls, who wrote the phenomenally successful One Day, which I enjoyed very much. Us, well, not so much. David Nicholls is a very entertaining writer so this book is is incredibly readable - a great beach read, really - but I could not shake off the feeling while I was reading it that this book is just unneccessary. I mean, does the world really need yet another 400 pages of a white middle-aged middle-class male explaining just how misunderstood he is? Surely we, as a reading and writing public, can put a moratorium on that storyline for like 10 years until the memory of all of the other books where a white middle-aged middle-class male complains about being unappreciated fade a little? These men in literature are just so whiny all the time. I mean, after reading 400 pages of Douglas' voice I wasn't surprised Connie was planning on leaving him - I was surprised she'd stayed with him in the first place.

It was quite jarring to read Us immediately following The Rabbit Back Literature Society. For days after finishing the latter I was still turning moments of the story over in my head; reading reviews and thinking about the ideas it raised. I finished Us about 10 hours ago and it's already hard to recall any of the key moments other than the names of the Petersons and that Douglas had an irritating personality. Us is an okay read - unexciting, unnecessary, written well. Three stars.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (2014)

The Rabbit Back Literature Society opens with a startled reader being "first surprised, then shocked" when in an essay on Dostoyevsky the criminal Raskolnikov is shot by the hooker with the heart of gold, Sonya. The reader in question is Ella Amanda Milana, who was "twenty-six years old and the possessor of a pair of beautifully curving lips and a pair of defective ovaries, among other parts." Ella has recently returned to her parents' home in Rabbit Back and is working as a substitute language and literature teacher at the local high school. Ella asks the student author of the essay why he made up a different ending and he shows her his copy of the book, borrowed from the Rabbit Back Library, which ends just as he describes. Ella takes the book back to the library and sets of a chain of unexpected, surprising events.

Rabbit Back is an unusual town. It is home to the famous children's author Laura White. It is also a place steeped in mysticism; where goblins, elves and forest nymphs are erected in statue-form around the town and a common household gift. In Rabbit Back, you can get your garden mythologically mapped to find out what magical creatures exactly live there and how best to deal with them. Many years ago, Laura White began the titular literature society, taking nine children from the local school and teaching them how to be writers.  Each of these children became authors themselves but Laura White is still looking for the society's 10th member. After reading a story of Ella's in the Rabbit Track's literary section (entitled "Ten" in reference to the literature society), Ella is invited to join the group but, on the night when she was to be formally inducted into the group, Laura White vanishes in a sudden snowstorm, never to be heard of again. Ella then begins to investigate White, using  The Game - a sadomasochistic technique where drugs and pain are used to obtain the very truth - to discover different literature society member's views of Laura White. In the process she demonstrates how damaged the writers were by their training and discovers many strange and unusual things.

I feel I am not capturing the book very well! On its surface, The Rabbit Back Literature Society has a fast and involving plot that kept me compulsively turning pages. There were at least two nights where I fell asleep while reading the book, I was so unwilling to put it down! But beyond the plot, there is so much to ponder in this very entertaining read. It feels a lot like a fairy tale. I'm not sure how much of that is due to its Finnish literary traditions (it was translated by Lola Rogers) but it's the kind of book that you keep thinking about for days afterward, turning different bits over in your brain. I really enjoyed reading it. I am looking forward to reading more from this author. Four and a half stars.