Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June, 2017

I Am No One

Posted by nliakos on June 28, 2017

by Patrick Flanery (Tim Duggan Books 2016)

I have never read a novel quite like this one. It is written in the first person; the narrator, Professor of 20th century German history Jeremy O’Keefe, is ostensibly telling the story of how he got to now (in longhand), including his belief that he is the object of (probably U.S.) surveillance (or is he losing his mind, as his daughter and son-in-law seem to think?). Someone (is it the young man he keeps bumping into, Michael Ramsey, who claims to have been his student more than a decade before, but whom he cannot remember?) has been sending him boxes of documents about himself: his web browsing history, past emails, bank records, etc. Why? Is it some kind of psychological torture, or is someone trying to warn him that he is under surveillance? He suspects that his affair with a former student during a ten-year period when he taught at Oxford University in England, which resulted in a child, is the reason he is being watched: his lover’s brother has ties to the Islamic State, and money he is sending her for his son’s support could be ending up in the hands of the brother (and the terrorist organization). But he insists that he is no one of interest to the government; he is only trying to do the right thing by the child he fathered, something he is both ashamed of and thrilled by. The specter of madness pursues him throughout the novel: is the man who is watching his apartment Michael Ramsey or someone else? Did he cancel that appointment with his student and then forget he had canceled it, or did someone else somehow send the email canceling the appointment from his account? How can he get his daughter and her husband (whom he does not trust) to believe his version of the strange events that keep happening to him?  Does Michael Ramsey wish him well or ill? The reader is kept in suspense, along with Jeremy himself, right up to the final pages of the novel. In fact, the ending was somewhat of a letdown for this reader (but I won’t spoil the story any more than I already have by revealing how it ends).

Flanery’s writing is elegant and skillful, but he has some real doozies of long sentences, like this one on pgs. 120-121: What is crazy is to imagine we are living private lives, or that a private life is a possibility any longer, and this is not just true for those of us who are living out our sentence in the developed world, but anyone anywhere, except perhaps those hidden underground, for the satellites we have launched into space and the aircraft, manned and unmanned, patrolling the air above the earth, gaze down upon us, producing finely detailed images of all our lives, watching us, or perhaps you could say we are merely watching ourselves, or at least the governments we allow to remain in power are watching us on our own behalf, as well as the corporations who do so only for their own behalf, even as they insist on the public service they claim to provide, and which we use, often for free, spending nothing to look at satellite images of our neighbors’ own backyards and roof terraces or street views of their front windows and doors, trading this free access to all knowledge of the world for the recording by such corporations of the habits of our activity and making ourselves susceptible not only to the collecting of this data and its potential monetization, that is to say its sale to other entities collecting their own kinds of data about us, but also to be bombarded with advertising that, however much we may struggle against it, inserts its messages deep into our thoughts, influencing us one way or another, even though I insist I am not receptive to advertisements for fast food establishments where I haven’t set foot since I was in my teens but nonetheless, and despite the fact I no longer eat meat, I look at those burgers and have to struggle against the desire their images produce.

Reading this 301-word sentence made me slightly queasy. I felt as though I were tottering on a tightrope, almost falling off at times as I attempted to follow the logic of the many  (uncounted) clauses. This one sentence contains a paragraph’s worth of thoughts about our loss of privacy and our apparent acceptance of this loss. Copying it down here, I realize that it does somehow hold together logically, describing as it does “the post-Snowden culture of surveillance” (Teddy Wayne, in a blurb on the back cover). I confess that I, too, have traded my privacy for the right to explore the Internet for free. I have justified my willingness to expose myself in emails (knowing that an email is no more private than a postcard) and on social media for the pleasure of feeling connected with friends, family, and others around the world by reassuring myself that no one would be interested in anything I write or post. I have an ordinary, even a boring (to other people anyway), life. As Jeremy O’Keefe puts it: I am no one. Why should anyone bother with surveilling me? This novel forces me to realize that interesting or not, my life is (or could be) an open book to someone with the capacity and the interest in reading it.

Advertisements

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

All the Light We Cannot See

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2017

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014)

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. I practically inhaled it over several days. I was completely caught up in the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, the gifted German boy, set before, during, and after the Second World War. All of the characters, including Marie-Laure’s father and her great-uncle Etienne, who suffered from extreme anxiety or agoraphobia; Madame Manec, who worked for Etienne and cared for Marie-Laure as long as she could; Werner’s sister Jutta, who always knew what was right; Frau Elena, the kind and courageous director of the orphanage where Werner and Jutta grew up; Frank Volkheimer, the giant boy-man from the Hitler Youth School who served with Werner; even Von Rumpel, the German officer desperately seeking the legendary diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which he believes will save him from the cancer that has riddled his body–all of them are memorable and believable.

The chapters, arranged in fourteen sections, are extremely short, some as short as a page, few longer than three. They alternate among the characters, primarily Marie-Laure and Werner, but some of the others as well, from time to time. The time frame lurches back and forth: August 7, 1944; 1934;  November 1939; August 8, 1944; June 1940; back to August 8, 1944; and so on, ending in 1974 and then 2014 as we learn what happened to these characters whom we have bonded with. With Werner and Marie-Laure, we suffer through the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo. Sometimes you have to destroy something to liberate it.

Through it all, the cursed diamond holds the story of all these diverse characters, times, and places together, like a character in and of itself. A terrific read!

 

Posted in Fiction, History | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on June 2, 2017

by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books 2014)

This is the companion book to the PBS/BBC collaborative series of the same name. I missed that back in 2014, but I’m inspired to watch it now, because the book was really interesting. It shows, for example, how the discovery of the special properties of silicon dioxide led to the invention of window glass, eyeglasses, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, fiberglass, even the World Wide Web. Johnson writes that when we snap a selfie and upload it to the Internet, we usually don’t think of “the way glass supports this entire network: we take pictures with glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.”

And that’s just Chapter 1! In addition to Glass, Johnson has chapters dedicated to Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light.  In each chapter, he follows the development of concepts and technologies related to the theme. He explains how most new technologies are invented by several people working at similar times (“in clusters of simultaneous discovery”), and that inventions are developed on the backs of previous ones.  He discusses the concept of the adjacent possible, a kind of discovery zone of possibilities that is normally present when an innovation is being incubated; without it, the innovation would be unthinkable. And he connects the dots to show us how each innovation clears the way for further innovations, like how solving the problems of waste disposal and clean water made possible the existence of mega-cities (which are not necessarily a good thing, but that’s another issue).

In the final chapter, “The Time Travelers”, Johnson introduces us to some exceptions to the ideas of simultaneous inventions and the adjacent possible: Charles Babbage, who essentially invented the computer in the 19th century, and his younger friend Ada Lovelace, who saw in Babbage’s invention the possibility of its uses beyond mathematics. Johnson writes in awe, “To have this imaginative leap in the middle of the nineteenth century is almost beyond comprehension. It was hard enough to wrap one’s mind around the idea of programmable computers–almost all of Babbage’s contemporaries failed to grasp what he had invented–but somehow, Ada was able to take the concept one step further, to the idea that this machine might also conjure up language and art. That one footnote opened up a conceptual space that would eventually be occupied by so much of early twenty-first-century culture: Google queries, electronic music, iTunes, hypertext. The computer would not just be an unusually flexible calculator; it would be an expressive, representational, even aesthetic machine.” Then he points out that when the time was finally ripe for this to actually happen, no one would remember either Babbage’s Analytical Engine or Lovelace’s vision of how it might be used, and they had to be re-invented by others.

A fascinating book for both science and history buffs! I am looking forward to watching the series.

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »