Sunday, May 25, 2014

Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide

A few months ago I favourably reviewed (here) Guardian journalist Luke Harding's The Snowden Files. It was the story of whistle blower Edward Snowden and the Guardian's heroic role in disclosing the data he extracted from the NSA (National Security Agency) while working as a contractor for the US Department of Defence.

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the Guardian at the time, and the one trusted journalist sought out by Snowden to facilitate the publication of the story, also builds in this just released book a dramatic narrative around all the events, issues, personalities and conflicts associated with the whole, incredibly dangerous enterprise. 

It's a beautifully written story of passionate, courageous journalism and a gripping read.

Edward Snowden himself is portrayed as an amazing young man. His courage, integrity, intelligence, strategic and media sense, and utter commitment to honesty is inspiring.

He did not want to go to prison, he said. 'I'm going to try not to. But if that's the outcome from all of this, and I know there's a huge chance that it will be, I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can't live with is knowing I did nothing.' (p51)

Greenwald's passion and obsession with exposing the truth, doing justice to Snowden, and not giving an inch to subservient, 'government embracing' media is a lesson to all so-called political journalists.

He outlines in detail all the NSA's surveillance systems, including how Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and other tech companies were compliant and cooperative despite their denials.

'Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide...The [NSA] is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.'

Threats against Greenwald by government spokespeople and establishment-defending journalists, who refused to refer to him as a journalist, resorting to handles like 'co-conspirator' and 'activist', were, and continue to be, shameful.

The absurd personal attacks on Snowden by the mainstream press, even quality press like the New York Times, the New Yorker and CNN, were lazy and dishonest lies.

Greenwald gets very reflective in the latter third of the book. He asks how and why the establishment protects itself, and reviews the literature on the psychological effects of the awareness of surveillance on people as they go about their normal lives.

The final chapter, The Fourth Estate, is an insightful essay on journalism and its relationship to the instruments of government and power. It's also a damning indictment of so much of contemporary journalism which has stooped to be little more than a mouthpiece for government interests.

No Place to Hide is a seriously good and worthwhile book. It's also a riveting read.

(Apologies for the lousy cover image above. It's Penguin's 'Commonwealth' edition and it's a strikingly bad cover anyway. And there's no photo of the author nor any index. Cheap.)

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

I have to confess I'm a bit of a sucker for books that come with four or five frontispiece pages of highly positive review snippets from around the world, like these:

'By the end you're exhausted and delighted by the relentless stream of literary adrenaline which the narrator has continuously injected into your veins' (Le Figuro)

'Dicker writes a story full of such intelligence and subtlety that you can only regret the fact it comes to an end. A novel that works on so many levels: a crime story, a love story, a comedy of manners, but equally an incisive critique of the art of the modern author.' (Elsevier).

There are twelve more of these, all heaping lavish, breathless praise on this first novel by young Swiss author Joel Dicker.

The problem is the book is simply awful - an unmitigated disaster on just about every level.

The core narrative is the love affair between Harry Quebert, a writer in his mid thirties, and Nola Kerrigan, an apparently gorgeous, blond, 15 year old teenager. Yes, she's fifteen. The setting is a small town in New Hampshire.

They spend a lot of time together, in Harry's house, and even go on a four day vacation to Martha's Vineyard, where they 'lived as if in a dream, in that beautiful hotel by the ocean. They swam, they walked, they ate together in the hotel's large dining room, and nobody looked at them or asked them any questions. On Martha's Vineyard, they were able to live.' 

No, we're not told by the narrator whether they were intimate, that is, whether they HAD SEX. All through the book the notion that Harry, this mature, sympathetic character, who recognises his love for this young girl is wrong and must end, but makes no real effort to do so, is in all probability indulging in a heinous crime, well that uncomfortable fact is simply ignored. We're in the realm of 'pure joyous love' here people. That is good and great, right?

All the characters in the novel, and there are plenty, are bold stroke and dramatic stereotypes. The young are good, the police are corrupt, small towns are full of provincial, ignorant types, etc. Some of the characters are even delightfully rendered, like the brash Barnasky, the New York publisher, and the young narrator Marcus' mother, a delicious Jewish creation. 

Books like this always have multiple and baffling twists and turns and this one is no exception. The problem is the ultimate resolution is about as emotionally unsatisfactory as it is possible to get. It's a complete mess. It's barely credible and quite silly. As a reader I felt deflated and sort of angry. 

So here's my quote, if the publisher would like to include it: 'The reviews quoted here, apart from mine, are rubbish'. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Edward St Aubyn's Lost For Words

St Aubyn's magnificent Patrick Melrose novels have led us to expect sparkling, lively prose from this superb wordsmith and he doesn't disappoint here. The crispness and precision is all there - there's not a word out of place. It's writing of the highest order.

Lost For Words is a satirical takedown of the literary world's obsession with prizes. The selection process for the Elysian Prize - obviously the Booker - is under way and the judges' idiocies and prejudices are on full display. Once a Booker shortlist nominee himself St Aubyn's own cynicism about literary prizes could not be clearer:

'It's a prize for literature', said Mr Wo. 'I hope it will go in the direction of literature...Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent'. 

This satire has all the caustic edge and savagery to make it a thrilling read. St Aubyn exquisitely lampoons many genres, fiction and non-fiction, and his aim is as true as can be. The most brilliant take-down is the critical review, polluted as it so often is by a faddish postmodernism. The French critic Didier, flamboyant and wild, is a marvellous creation:

'Evidently..we are in the presence of the text-as-textile, as the fabrication that weaves a dissimulating veil over its apparent subject, expressing the excess of figurative language over any assigned meaning or, more generally, the excessive force of the signifier over any signified that tries to contain it'. 

The febrile, desiccated and corrupted British establishment bumbles along, lauding 'relevance', indulging in a lazy populism, and trashing England's unique literary and cultural heritage in the process, leaving space for Russian thugs on the one hand and Chinese corporate interests on the other. 

Ironically, at the Awards Dinner, the Chinese CEO of the sponsor company and his highly intelligent wife seem the only literate adults in the room.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Thomas Piketty's Magisterial 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century'

This is the book everyone's talking about. If you are at all interested in economics, particularly economic history, and if you are at all cranky about the crop of liars, frauds and economic illiterates currently governing us, then it's a must read.

I've spent the past week reading all of its 685 pages (one has the time, you know, when one's retired) and I must say it's been an enthralling experience. I'm not an academically trained economist, although I did a unit of economic history at university eons ago, but I've been obsessed with the subject ever since I discovered the brilliant and Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman two decades ago. I've read all his books, Slate and New York Times columns, and his thousands of blog posts ever since. The man is a liberal, progressive voice of sanity in today's economic and political madness.

Now I have another hero - Piketty. His central thesis is that over the last 300 years the return on capital has been significantly higher than the growth rate of the economy, and thus incomes, in every Western country including Japan. The only exception to this was the period between the two world wars last century when capital was destroyed on a grand scale - by bombed buildings and infrastructure on the one hand, and expropriation and runaway inflation on the other. Since then capital has resumed its inexorable growth, ensuring wealth and power is increasingly accruing to the top decile of the population, especially the top one percent. Rapidly growing inequality is the result. The middle class forty percent and the bottom fifty percent of society become increasingly resentful and powerless, and this can only have rather dire consequences for social cohesion into the future. 

Governments can do things - like introduce annual taxes on capital holdings; reverse the flattening of progressive taxation of incomes that has taken place since the Reagan/Thatcher years - but this requires global will and courage, and the wealthy increasingly control governments anyway. 

A couple of insights stand out. From the beginning of the Christian era until the year 1700 world population growth was virtually non-existent - less than 0.1% per year. Economic growth was similarly stagnant. In the last three centuries however population growth has been significant, at 0.8% per year. In the 20th century it was bullish, at 1.4%. This propelled considerable economic growth. However that growth is projected by the latest UN forecasts to fall to 0.4% by the 2030's and settle, once again, to around 0.1% in the 2070's. Thus economic growth will similarly decline, propelled as it is mainly by population growth. Incomes - wages and salaries - will follow. 

The return on capital, however, will continue at around 4%-5% each year for a long period of time. The phenomenon of 'patrimonial capitalism' will dominate. As wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wages, according to Piketty, 'the past devours the future'.

(Gina Rinehart anyone? Jamie Packer? The Murdochs? Their power grows, the rest of us labouring suckers shrink).  

Piketty relies on comprehensive databases of economic and social statistics from many countries (including Australia and New Zealand) that he and his colleagues have painstakingly built over the last fifteen years. Thus the many graphs and tables presented (115 in all) are fascinating in themselves. Simply perusing these can convey the whole story succinctly.

He is a natural-born teacher. This book is a narrative, providing context and perspective for today's realities and debates. He provides constant introductions, summaries and recaps as he goes. As a reader the main arguments and themes are always clear. The book is very logically organised.

The writing is clear and non-academic in style. He uses the personal pronoun 'I' not the impersonal 'we'. Thus he intimately connects with the reader in the telling of this 300 year story, even when the math equations get a bit heavy.

The English translation is, on the whole, pretty good, though the word 'concretely' (meaning 'in practice') appears far too often. Is it even a word?

In summary, a ground-breaking, wonderful, fascinating and very important book. 

(Paul Krugman's very positive review in the New York Review of Books is here)