The subtitle of The Lonely City, 'Adventures in the Art of Being Alone', has a double meaning: as well as being a book about the experience of lonelinThe subtitle of The Lonely City, 'Adventures in the Art of Being Alone', has a double meaning: as well as being a book about the experience of loneliness itself, this is a book about the role of loneliness in art. The starting point is Olivia Laing's own period of intense loneliness, living in New York after the end of a relationship, bringing to life the so-often-true cliche of being alone in a crowd, isolated and displaced in the centre of one of the world's most populous cities. She makes a study of several artists and photographers, chiefly Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger, and also talks peripherally about the work of Valerie Solanas, Josh Harris, Zoë Leonard, Peter Hujar and others. The resulting reflections touch on everything from the evolving role of the internet in society to Laing's own gender identity.
I loved The Lonely City, but it's unusually hard to pin down what's so good about it, partly because it's just such a patchwork of genre components - creative non-fiction, memoir, art history, psychology and sociotechnological commentary are all thrown into the mix. Rather than making the book seem like a hodgepodge of nothing much, this makes it stronger, and like the best of this type of writing, it made me keen to find out more about some of the subjects it touches on. The depth of Laing's research is apparent, but it's the personal ruminations that hit home the hardest. There is a clear line drawn - repeatedly - between solitude and loneliness, a distinction that isn't made often enough. Laing also writes incisively about how an online existence can alleviate and/or crystallise individuals' isolation, avoiding the tedious 'the internet is making everyone lonelier' proselytising that typically pervades writing about that particular subject. Along with her openness about her own thoughts and feelings, these points make Laing's observations feel fresh.
When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.
Recently, when I (briefly) reviewed Emma Jane Unsworth's Animals, I mentioned that I felt so relieved and validated by the ending that I was overwhelmed by a feeling of wanting to actually thank the author for it. I had the same feeling upon finishing The Lonely City. Laing emphasises how much solace she found in the work of her beloved artists, but doesn't suggest this ought to be seen as some sort of cure; there are no solid conclusions about how one 'should' experience, or seek to combat, loneliness. Despite this - actually more likely because of it - The Lonely City is an incredibly reassuring read for anyone who has ever been lonely or struggled with their own experience of solitude.
I received an advance review copy of The Lonely City from the publisher through NetGalley....more
It's difficult to say what I Love Dick actually is. It's not strictly a novel, but nor is it exactly right to describe it as non-fiction. Rather, it'sIt's difficult to say what I Love Dick actually is. It's not strictly a novel, but nor is it exactly right to describe it as non-fiction. Rather, it's a sort of semi-fictionalised memoir that takes in critical theory, feminist critique, art history, etc. In her afterword, Joan Hawkins dubs it 'theoretical fiction'. At its heart is the story of the infatuation Chris Kraus the character (not necessarily to be confused with Chris Kraus the author) has with Dick, an acquaintance of her husband Sylvère, whom the couple have dinner with at the very beginning of the book. It's made up of letters Chris and Sylvère write to Dick - some are actually sent to him, but most aren't - and everything that results from the infatuation and the expression of it through these letters: proposals for art projects (of which this book is arguably the final incarnation), a continuous system of critique, Chris's 'lonely girl phenomenology', a deconstruction of the idea of a love triangle.
There's a lot I could say about this, but I don't feel qualified to. I hope one day someone else will write the review of it I'd like to see (the closest thing I've found so far is this LRB piece by Jenny Turner). I Love Dick is thought-provoking, certainly, but also infuriating, narcissistic and soaked in the author's/characters' privilege. In particular, I felt aggravated by Chris's attempts to assume a kind of starving artist identity while frequently referencing the swathe of properties she owns (with Sylvère), and then there's the namedropping... oh god, the namedropping. With the current climate of online feminism being what it is, I'm really surprised I haven't seen wider critique of this - especially from intersectional perspectives - along with the recent resurgence in the book's popularity.
I Love Dick is not 'unreadable', as its harshest critics call it; that's the least of its problems, and it is, in fact, very much what most people would consider readable, with strong momentum and enough of a conventional plot - the continued question of whether there is or isn't, will or won't be a relationship between Chris and Dick, and how he will respond to Chris and Sylvère's obsessive project - to keep even casual readers invested in its outcome. I can even see why the ending might be deemed shocking (if you related to and/or empathised with Chris), but I greeted it with a shrug rather than taking it like a punch to the gut. I never felt I was reading/experiencing this story and its philosophical revelations as a 'fellow woman' but rather as an outsider to a story that belongs to a wealthy American artist. But I was, admittedly, reading it from a personal perspective and not in any kind of critical or theoretical context. ...more
(at 12%) I seem to have been struggling with non-fiction lately, and this is no exception. At this point, I can't get a handle on where it's going or(at 12%) I seem to have been struggling with non-fiction lately, and this is no exception. At this point, I can't get a handle on where it's going or what it's saying; there's no hook to make me want to keep reading. Am bearing in mind, though, that this was also how I felt about Laurence Scott's The Four-Dimensional Human in its early stages, and I ended up absolutely LOVING that once I'd got into the rhythm of it. tbc...more
Having had it on my 'currently reading' shelf since the 15th of June, I'm putting this to one side for now. The 'unsuccessful attempt' shelf isn't quiHaving had it on my 'currently reading' shelf since the 15th of June, I'm putting this to one side for now. The 'unsuccessful attempt' shelf isn't quite the right place for it since I haven't actually abandoned it and intend to finish it. However, that probably won't be any time soon, and it really annoys me to have to have things listed as currently reading for months on end....more
I was given this as a Christmas present. With no idea what to expect from it, I approached it like a fashion magazine, keeping it to hand whenever I wI was given this as a Christmas present. With no idea what to expect from it, I approached it like a fashion magazine, keeping it to hand whenever I was in the kitchen, flicking through a handful of pages at a time and then forgetting about it for a while. That accounts for how long it took me to read it. But I really, really liked it, far more than I expected to. Sharp, sassy, insouciant and tongue-in-cheek - simply reading it automatically made me feel more Parisian.
And like pretty much every fashion book I've read, this has negative reviews on Goodreads for the stupidest reasons. If you take anything in this book relating to relationships/cheating seriously, you need help....more
I've always enjoyed Ronson's style of writing, and this is a typically light-hearted, pacy investigation, focusing on the idea of 'public shaming' andI've always enjoyed Ronson's style of writing, and this is a typically light-hearted, pacy investigation, focusing on the idea of 'public shaming' and its latter-day resurrection in the forms of social media scandals, 'Twitterstorms' et al. I don't know why it's taken this long for it to occur to me that Ronson's books are like Louis Theroux TV shows in book form, but now that it has, this seems like a perfect example: each chapter features Ronson spending time with an individual whose 'life has been ruined' by one of these public shaming incidents, varying from a journalist whose work was exposed as a fraud (and the man who exposed him) to people who've posted ill-advised tweets and seen their careers destroyed as a result; the style is irreverent and often very funny.
There's something about the book as a whole, though, that doesn't quite hang together as a coherent thesis. Some of the conclusions seem shaky (the 'happy ending' for Lindsey Stone is neatly wrapped up, but it's easy enough to google her name and find that her indiscretion still massively dominates the search results, contrary to what's implied). Some of the topics would really have benefited from deeper exploration. I know that's not the point of a book like this, but I found myself thinking I would have preferred to read some of the chapters as separate articles or essays....more
Mixing theology, political history, modern philosophy and contemporary literary criticism, this is a readable and entertaining treatise on the conceptMixing theology, political history, modern philosophy and contemporary literary criticism, this is a readable and entertaining treatise on the concept of evil. It's short - actually more like a long-form essay - and although its conclusions are arguably vague, it's very interesting, and you will come away with a long list of further reading....more
No Easy Answers is a true crime book about the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, notable because it's co-written by Brooks Brown, who was a clasNo Easy Answers is a true crime book about the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, notable because it's co-written by Brooks Brown, who was a classmate and alleged friend of the shooters. It's for this reason, I suppose, that I have come across various recommendations of this book over Dave Cullen's Columbine, though the latter is by all accounts more accomplished; for whatever reason, I've had an idea fixed in my head for some time that this was the definitive Columbine book. Watching the first season of American Horror Story, in which one character's crime is very clearly and specifically based on the Columbine shootings, brought it back into my mind. (I also had this sudden compulsion to read loads of true crime which inexplicably disappeared as soon as it inexplicably arrived, lasting about a day in total.)
I think this sort of thing - a famous crime or incident or whatever it might be, described from the viewpoint of someone who was close to it but not actually involved - usually reveals more about that person than it does about the crime or incident. No Easy Answers made me think of Dreams of a Life, the documentary film about Joyce Vincent, the young woman whose body lay unnoticed in her flat for two years. The object of Dreams of a Life was to unravel how such a thing could have happened, how Joyce, who was popular and appeared to lead a full, varied life, was not missed or searched for. But through its interviews with people who knew her, the film revealed much more about their personalities and attitudes than it did about Joyce; whether this was the filmmaker's intention or not, I felt it was a character study of them, not her. Similarly, No Easy Answers ends up saying a lot more about Brooks Brown than it does about the Columbine shooters.
The book steers all its arguments towards two targets - the culture of bullying at Columbine (the focus here being the teachers who allowed and encouraged bullying to happen rather than the students perpetrating it) and the incompetence of police. These factors are blamed for the shooting at the expense of any other possible influences. For example, the idea that more stringent gun laws would have helped prevent the massacre is (more than once) dismissed within a couple of sentences, with Brown vaguely arguing that people determined to get hold of weapons will manage to do it no matter what the laws are. Some of the revelations about the police's lack of interest in early signs of criminal potential from the shooters are, admittedly, shocking, if not exactly surprising. The bullying accusations are more problematic - while I remain convinced that bullying was a factor, even if only a minor one, the way the issue is discussed here doesn't really do anything to put forward a coherent case, partly because it's too heavily defined by personal experience.
Brown basically seems very much like someone who is still really struggling with having been bullied at school and is still very bitter and angry about it. That's understandable - it took me until adulthood to get over various experiences of bullying too, and I know some people my age who still haven't shaken that mindset off entirely, and of course it isn't surprising that if this was his own experience, he'd naturally be keen to emphasise its significance in influencing the mindsets of the shooters. But it also makes the author sound very immature and biased when discussing the reasons the attack happened. The repeated mentions of Brown's own musical tastes and how these made him 'different' are pretty cringey; he also comes off as someone who thinks he's a lot smarter than he actually is. Despite the anti-bullying agenda, there's often a sense that Brown is pushing a right-wing individualistic philosophy (the Ayn Rand quotes...) and there's also a strong and pretty nasty streak of sexism running throughout the book. His parents don't come out of it much better - in fact, if there was one thing this book highlighted for me that I hadn't thought much about before, it's exactly how privileged, spoilt and cosseted all these kids were. Added to that, going by the evidence in this book, the repeated claim that Brown was Dylan Klebold's 'best friend' seems shaky: it doesn't appear that the two were particularly close.
I never usually leave books without a rating, but I'm not sure where I would place this one: I'm less confident about rating it because it's not as if I've read a lot of true crime to compare it to. It was interesting to read this to get the perspective of someone who was close to the shooters and the subsequent investigation (Brown himself was implicated as a potential accomplice and went through a legal battle to establish his innocence). But the style and tone were offputting, and I don't feel I really learned anything new - there wasn't anything here that I haven't already read on the internet, although I realise it would have been far more revelatory when it was first published in 2002....more
I can't remember when and how I first became aware of this book, but I had always assumed - mainly, I suppose, because of the title, and the subjectsI can't remember when and how I first became aware of this book, but I had always assumed - mainly, I suppose, because of the title, and the subjects covered within the book - that it would primarily be about the deep web. In fact, only one chapter is really about that, and the rest of the book is actually about broader categories of online activity and behaviour encapsulated by the subtitle - 'inside the digital underworld'. Topics covered include trolling, political extremism, camsex, online currencies, buying drugs on the internet, child porn, pro-ana sites, and various ideologies and movements arising from either deification of the internet or rejection of it.
In the introduction, Bartlett talks about the 'Assassination Market' service (or rather, experiment) available on the deep web, but then emphasises that this is an extreme example of the 'dark net', a term he expands to include hidden content, pages not indexed by Google, members-only forums and the like. The introduction also positions The Dark Net not as a comprehensive account, but as the product of personal research - although it is also very neutral, to the point of not attempting to condemn any of the many deviant behaviours it describes (harrassment, racism, consumption of child abuse images and so on). Instead it acts as an impartial report of the facts.
Chapter one: Trolling - the history of flaming and trolling from the Arpanet to bulletin boards to Usenet, through to student websites of the late 1990s and Anonymous, 4chan and /b/ today. Chapter two: Extremism and the 'lone wolf', exploring the spread of (almost exclusively right-wing) politics online. Referencing the EDL and Anders Behring Breivik, Bartlett goes on to explore the idea that a) the internet is giving groups like the EDL much more of a platform, but b) it is also creating a large number of isolated individuals who are 'leaders' of this movement online but 'nobody' irl - his recurring subject in this chapter is a 'handsome, polite, attentive' British guy who runs a blog about 'White Pride' and has a following of thousands, but in reality is unemployed and largely friendless. Chapter three: Bitcoin, a short history of internet cryptography and the cypherpunk movement; guest appearance by Julian Assange. Unlike the rest of the book, some of this is quite technical (no, I'm not going to pretend I really understand the 'blockchain'), but it also mentions some of the political beliefs behind cypherpunk and crypto, and culminates with Bartlett visiting a hackers' commune in Spain. Altogether, very interesting (and probably the only subject I hadn't really read anything about prior to reading this book). Chapter four: Child pornography. Touches on the ways in which the internet has facilitated the spread of child porn, compared to its scarcity in the early 1990s (some quite shocking statistics here), and the distinction between real and virtual sex offenders. Bartlett examines child porn using the idea that it's always 'only three clicks away' from legal porn available on the surface web. Chapter five: Buying and selling drugs online. As I previously mentioned, there is only one chapter that really deals with the deep web, and this is it. It looks at the drugs market Silk Road 2.0 (which has just been taken down by the FBI) and similar services. Chapter six: Mainly focused on camgirl websites, but Bartlett's observations on camming also form the basis for a short discussion of online identities and the rise of the 'personal brand' on social media, the linked increase in 'presentation anxiety', various perspectives on online privacy, and the phenomenon of revenge porn. Overall, though, this is probably the least interesting chapter: much of it is focused on the financial side of camming and the hierarchy of 'tipping' from viewers - which doesn't seem like the most interesting angle to take on this subject - and descriptions of the sex itself are so bloodless they actually make it boring. Understandable that the author wouldn't have wanted this chapter to seem salacious, but it ends up being rather dull. Chapter seven: Pro-anorexia websites and those that encourage self-harm and suicide. Discusses the idea of 'behavioural contagion' - the idea of such sites leading to a rise in this behaviour as it's seen as a way to get attention and be part of a community - but also recognises that some sufferers have drawn strength from these communities, and used them as a form of therapy.
In the conclusion, Bartlett contrasts the beliefs of prominent members of two movements - transhumanism (those who predict and aspire towards the merging of human biology and technology - cryogenics, 'uploading' your brain, artificial intelligence overtaking human intelligence, and so on), and anarcho-primitivism (who oppose technology altogether and advocate a return to a type of pre-civilisation collectivism).
I'm surprised The Dark Net isn't more widely read - there's only a handful of reviews on Goodreads - and not just because of the subject matter, but because it's an extremely accessible and compulsively readable book. I've been struggling through another non-fiction book (which is no less accessible) for over a month now, and had been worrying that I was so accustomed to reading non-fiction in bite-sized internet chunks that my mind couldn't cope with a full book of it. The Dark Net dispelled that notion immediately - I read it with the same urgency I apply to compelling novels. That isn't to say it is especially brilliant as an in-depth study of the subjects it covers. There isn't really anything covered here that I haven't already been aware of through various articles and stuff on forums etc, but I still found it incredibly interesting (particularly anything about the history of the internet/its existence prior to my own introduction to it in the late 90s), and it's useful to have all these topics covered in one volume. Really, it's a primer rather than an in-depth academic text: the 'endnotes', containing extended quotes and numerous links and suggestions, take up more than a quarter of the entire book. There's plenty to explore here should you want to look into any one of these topics in greater depth.
I could happily have read a longer version of this book, or one that covered more subjects related to the 'dark side' of the internet - the weirder corners of fandom are conspicuous by their absence. But I think the best way to read The Dark Net is as a series of short essays, with the endnotes to each chapter as a goldmine of references, links, and further reading. If you're looking for a comprehensive, detailed study of these subjects, this is probably not the book for you, but it's fantastic as an introduction, and it also manages to be brilliantly easy to read while not being patronising towards the reader. Recommended. ...more
This is a difficult book to write about and very hard to describe. It's basically a study of how 'networked life', ie 24/7 connection to the internetThis is a difficult book to write about and very hard to describe. It's basically a study of how 'networked life', ie 24/7 connection to the internet and social media and the ability to constantly communicate across almost all physical borders, has transformed the human experience, and what that means for us. But it's a sprawling sort of book that goes in loads of different directions, rather than presenting a single argument. If this sounds a bit incoherent, it sometimes can be, yet Scott's writing is so beautiful it barely matters. It's an academic thesis written like a novel. Pop culture references are woven in very naturally and nothing about it feels gimmicky. I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but this really grabbed me.
After nearly two months of trying to get through this, I'm giving up. I love Hustvedt - three of her novels are among my all-time favourites - and itAfter nearly two months of trying to get through this, I'm giving up. I love Hustvedt - three of her novels are among my all-time favourites - and it isn't even that I thought there was anything specific wrong with any of the essays I read (although none of them made much of an impression on me either), I just couldn't summon up any enthusiasm or motivation to finish reading this.
I did make a lot of notes on this when I first started it, so might write a longer review later.
--- From a Tumblr post:
Siri Hustvedt has been near the top of my list of favourite novelists for quite a while, with three of her books among my all-time favourites. You might, therefore, assume (as I did myself) that I’d adore this collection of her essays, but you’d be wrong. I can’t remember the last time I had such a struggle attempting to finish a book. I dragged myself through eight of the twelve essays and finally abandoned the whole thing in the middle of the piece about 9/11.
It’s not at all that the book is bad or poorly written in any way, but I completely failed to get to grips with it or find anything about it that could sustain my interest. ‘Yonder’, which opens the book, I found interesting because it’s personal - it’s about Hustvedt’s family, linking parts of her own history with ruminations on how and what we remember, formative understandings of language, and the significance of certain stories - but it was also slow going. I found the base of 'A Plea for Eros’ (the essay) significantly underdeveloped; it basically says desire is complex and hard to understand or define in narrow terms, which is fine, and difficult to argue with, but I’d like to have seen further exploration of this idea. The anecdote that bookends this essay also seems trite at best, distasteful at worst. And apart from that, I can’t even remember any of the others I read. My overall feeling was that there were some really interesting ideas and themes here, but I much prefer Hustvedt’s exploration of them in fictional contexts to her essays.
Perhaps it’s an issue that some of the pieces are dated - many were originally published in the late 1990s, and a few address issues that have become widely discussed in recent years, making their scope seem very limited now. I wondered for a while if the problem lay somewhere between my own reading abilities and the book’s format, whether I’d just become so accustomed to only reading non-fiction in the form of online articles that I’d developed a faulty attention span. But I’ve recently read and enjoyed Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist and Jamie Bartlett’s study of the internet, The Dark Net, so it would appear I am somewhat capable of reading longer volumes of non-fiction. Just not this one....more
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain... interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
I loved Bad Feminist. This is a collection of essays that feels like coming across a particularly brilliant blog and obsessively reading back through pages and pages of posts, elated to have found something so smart and relevant and readable. Throughout this book, the author comes across as so likeable and brilliant I can't imagine how you could read it and not want to be her friend. I was making notes from the introduction onwards; after a few chapters, I'd followed Gay on Twitter and Tumblr; I came away from the book with a reading list. If I could easily find other non-fiction books as engaging as this, I'd read a hell of a lot more non-fiction.
I was originally going to write a review that would link my appreciation of this book with some of my own opinions on modern feminism, online feminism, and the reasons I've become reluctant to participate in online dialogue surrounding feminist issues. But the more I read, the less relevant this seemed. While this collection may be framed as a feminist book, it is actually much broader than that in terms of the subjects covered. True, Gay writes from a feminist standpoint, but a minority of the essays here are actually about feminism. They also take in issues of race, class, culture, politics and education as well as more personal topics.
My favourite pieces in the collection were the pop-culture-focused ones in which Gay examines topics such as the representation of people of colour in film, or 'unlikeable' female characters in contemporary fiction. I like that her references are only occasionally classics: more often she analyses popular novels, blockbuster movies, well-known TV shows. 'Girls, Girls, Girls' discusses, unsurprisingly, the hit US series Girls; in 'I Once Was Miss America', Gay revisits her childhood obsession with the Sweet Valley High series, segueing into a hilarious assessment of the recent 'adult' sequel to those books; in 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' she looks at various representations of women in modern culture, from novels to reality television. One of the best is 'Not Here To Make Friends', an essay on the importance of 'likability' in characters, mainly female characters, in fiction. In this one I highlighted the following passage, not because it makes any especially salient points, but because I could have written it myself, and when I read it I had one of those delightful moments of feeling as if the author had read my mind.
I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who behave in socially unacceptable ways, say whatever is on their mind, and do what they want with varying levels of regard for the consequences. I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.
I came away from this essay and 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' in particular with a reading list made up of novels I either hadn't heard of or had previously dismissed. I loved these essays so much, I know I'll read them again and again, and they made me want to read more pop-culture criticism, and aspire to write this sort of thing myself. She makes it look easy, though it patently isn't.
The downside of a collection like this, including a number of essays previously published elsewhere, is that the quality is inevitably going to be inconsistent to a certain degree. There were a couple I wasn't interested in (mainly the Scrabble one, to be honest), and one or two felt like something had been tacked on to the end of an existing piece to make it more relevant to the feminist theme. There are certainly parts of this book that are worthy of five stars, but I can't quite give the whole of it five stars; but, having said that, there are very few faults I can find with it.
Bad Feminist is a lot of things: funny, moving, thought-provoking, intelligent, relevant, and extremely honest. It's easy to read and amusing and insightful; I hope that means it will be very popular. No doubt, because it has 'feminist' in the title, it will be put under the microscope and pulled apart in certain corners of the internet; but I really like the fact that it is emphatically a personal book, that Gay wears her 'bad feminist' credentials, as outlined in the quote at the start of this review, on her sleeve. The notion of being a 'bad feminist' - a person who is always still learning, who enjoys some things that are deemed problematic, who doesn't care about some things she should care about, and cares too much about others - is something all feminists can surely relate to. And in spite of the prefix 'bad', I, like the author, find it a very positive and freeing concept. ...more
I only took this out of the library because I've heard several times that it's absolutely terrible, and I was curious. I quite like Alexa Chung, largeI only took this out of the library because I've heard several times that it's absolutely terrible, and I was curious. I quite like Alexa Chung, largely based on her style - I don't think I've ever seen her presenting anything - but that's probably the way most people think about her, hence the publication of this scrapbook-cum-style-guide rather than an autobiography. It is a combination of irreverent commentary, fashion advice, photography and illustrations, mixed with autobiographical anecdotes. And... it's quite a nice, enjoyable, amusing book. I don't know exactly what it is people were expecting that's made so many so irritated with this - did they think Chung was going to write a detailed step-by-step guide on how to replicate her life and wardrobe? It's exactly what I would have expected it to be, and although it is a very quick read and probably more something you'd buy as a gift than get yourself, I didn't think it was disappointing (although, to be fair, my expectations were low). It may indeed be quite pointless, but there's nothing wrong with that now and again, and if I'm reading a style book by a celebrity then I don't want it to be challenging anyway....more