Erica Chenoweth, political scientist and possibly the world’s preeminent expert on what I call nonviolent direct action, is famous within Extinction Rebellion for having first espoused the 3.5% notion: that an activist movement needs to fully and solidly mobilize that percentage of a population to achieve change. Chenoweth has written much, including books, on the subject. Now “Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know” is a consummate, wise, compendious everyperson treatment of this vital topic, suitable for both the experienced activist and anyone anxious to right wrongs and unsure whether to start a war or organize a protest. Chenoweth’s patient account, backed by as much research as has been done (she is at pains always to point out that research can be helpful but social change is ultra complicated and each case is unique), forms a history, a primer, a reflection, a from-the-headlines analysis (including, for example, how governments now fear civil resistance the most and actively fight it with fake news and deliberate provocation), and a toolkit. In my youth I read Gene Sharpe, the first systematic synthesizer of nonviolence’s history, and I’ve been an activist (an active activist, that is) twice in my life, so I am no neophyte, but I was spellbound by the usefulness and generosity of Civil Resistance. A must-read for anyone longing for a better world.
United Nations diplomat Charles Petrie operated in the hellholes of the world for two decades, and in “The Triumph of Evll: Genocide in Rwanda and the Fight for Justice,” he jettisons his learnt reticence to pursue an evildoer he came across during the unbelievably appalling Rwandan genocide in 1994. A UN officer led the killings of numerous people, including UN friends of Petrie, but has remained free despite years of pursuit. Petrie’s crowd-funded book is a modern-day page turner, as he describes, painstakingly and often lyrically, the twists and turns of his diplomatic career, all the while attempting to keep the wheels of justice turning. He admits to failure, and one of his confessions is heartbreaking. What makes The Triumph of Evil so remarkable is the beautiful illustrated drawings of Spike Zephaniah Stephenson, especially a long visual narrative of the unspeakable events of 1994. The Triumph of Evil springs from the heart and is a work of bracing, solemn majesty. May Petrie’s campaign one day win!
“Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” is an expose of evil that will stand the test of time as a classic. Patrick Radden Keefe is a consummate investigator and precise, rhythmic chronicler, and what a subject he has chosen to tackle. The Sackler family started and pursued the OxyContin opioid crisis that has engulfed large slabs of the United States and killed a half million people. The author follows the Sacklers from humble origins in the early 20th Century, through years of obscure but wealth-gathering pharmaceutical company building, through the years of fanning the greed-fuelled ascent to billionaire status, through the years of compulsive opportunistic philanthropy, through the twisted treacherous theatricality of a large, voracious family, to our current era of justice sought. This is no easy tale to tell, with its complexity and deeply disguised corruption, but the author exhibits masterful control and cogency. Empire of Pain should arouse rousing outrage and motivate sweeping change. Brilliant.
“No One Is Talking About This” immediately thrusts the reader into the world of a social media “influencer,” an unidentified woman fully immersed in what she calls the “portal.” In a manner reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s wonderful Something Happened, the first half of the novel riffs and riffs on our hero’s bizarre yet instantly recognizable life, more an online life than a real one, and then, with the impact of a lightning bolt, switches to a new existence rendered real by a tragic event. Nothing in the first fascinating pages prepares the reader for the wrenching tale that then ensues, and when the dust settles, the final uneasy juxtaposition between Trumpian, quotidian existence and the internet world a click away is unforgettable. Patricia Lockwood is a superb, poetic stylist with an unerring eye for both the banalities and the profundities of the modern world. No One Is Talking About This postures as experimental fiction, and readers need to be patient, but, please, stick with it, for I predict this novel will remain a mainstay for years to come.
Two decades ago, I did enough research into the world of hackers and cybersecurity to know about black hats and white hats and the dark, sometimes romantic world they inhabit. I even worked for a cyber protection company for a few months. Well, reading “This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race” is an eye opener. How the software/online world has transformed! That old slapdash, cowboy world changed when so many software holes became apparent that some of them, “day zeros,” became tagged as special; money lurched after them; governments joined the gold rush; America rampaged all over the world but then its enemies stole or reverse engineered its goodies; and suddenly here we are, in Nicole Perlroth’s world. Seven years of dogged, brilliant journalistic investigation into the murkiest depths have yielded a mind-blowing book of coverage and revelation. Essentially, Perlroth tells us, we are fucked, although, of course, she tells the tale far more elegantly, for she’s a superb, sprightly stylist. Backed by hundreds of interviews, peopled by emblematic hackers and mercenaries and spooks, Perlroth’s jaw-dropping narrative begs the question: why hasn’t much worse befallen the world’s online/software-driven infrastructure? Reading her recommendations for ameliorative action at the end suggests, to me at least, that the answer is: good fortune. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends is one of 2021’s essential reads and a pleasure to consume at that.
The fifth instalment in the ongoing adventures of Isaiah Quintabe, geeky private detective extraordinaire in the hells of Los Angeles, “Smoke” no longer follows the standard format of “client presents case, IQ solves it.” At the end of the explosive fourth book, IQ fled LA and Grace, the love of his life, shattered by violence. Smoke chronicles his recovery steps, hidden a long way away, while back in his home town, we follow the adventures of Grace, sometime friend Deronda, and his on-again-off-again hipster partner Dodson, while the author introduces three disparate villains of varying levels of depravity. Like James Lee Burke, Joe Ide seems to specialise in picaresque, nigh emblematic bad guys, and Smoke sizzles with their horrors and plans. The plot rockets along, and the characters are, as always, alive with zest and ripe dialogue and thoughts. I missed the old IQ, solver of puzzles, until some of the subplots meshed together and he is forced to use all his skills. A white-knuckle ride, that’s what Smoke is, and wonderfully written. I would recommend beginning at the first book, though.
A Malcolm Gladwell book or podcast (and they are similar) is a breath of fresh intellectual air. Even if you disagree with his latest thinking, his argument always chimes sweetly and the telling is sure-footed. “The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War” is another readily readable slice of history, this time the quest of a ragtag group of American air force officers, from just before WWII, to invent pinpoint bombing and, potentially, to make ground and sea warfare moot. Gladwell tackles this idea slowly and thoughtfully, telling the tale of a reclusive, crusty Dutch inventor who invents the bomb sight, then traversing the war until the post-war lunacies of Curtis LeMay. Carry The Bomber Mafia to a park in springtime, read it in one sitting, and momentarily consider Gladwell’s intriguing musings soon forgotten.
Missing out on Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason’s varied works to date is regrettable, for on the evidence of “On Time and Water,” he is a sumptuous, precise stylist. Part memoir, part historical exploration, part climate emergency plea, part climate science exposition, On Time and Water ranges effortlessly over Magnason’s investigations into Finland’s ancient glaciers, indeed the world’s glaciers, as they begin to melt at an accelerating rate; over the notion of past time as experienced by his grandparents; over mythologies, generating his conceit that a holy cow has reached out to him to write the book; and over the notion of future time in the Anthropocene Age. Two interviews with the Dalai Lama offers reflections on mortality and the glacial melting in the Himalayas. Switching effortlessly between journalese and poetic prose, Magnason champions a far richer relationship with the future, out to his great-great-grandchildren, in place of the prevalent short-termism that threatens us all. A most rousing read, On Time and Water should be required reading for young people (we in the older generation seem to be a lost cause).
“Fire, Storm and Flood: The Violence of Climate Change” is labelled “a photographic record” of the climate emergency, and is structured as stunning stock photos, each accompanied by a couple of pages of fluent narrative prose. The author, a British Earth systems scientist, has artfully selected vignettes and climate tales from around the world and through time. As a collection of short essays on aspects of climate change occurring now or forecast to occur with certainty, it is timely. Essays that impacted me included the one of back to back photos of a glacier now and decades ago; the heavily populated Thar Desert across Pakistan and India; the ignominy of the Athabasca Oil Sands; the 2018 China heatwave; and Death Valley temperatures approaching wet bulb death levels. Although useful and often compelling, I pined for a cogent narrative through-line to shape for my reading, and I was irritated by the book’s progressive timeline which is small and unreadable on a tablet. Fire, Storm and Flood is worth considering if you are hungry for global warming stories.
Iain Ryan’s previous noir outing, The Student, featured a gormless, unlikeable character in an academic setting, thrust down a violent rabbit hole “The Spiral” has that much in common with its predecessor, only this time our protagonist Erma is a lecturer adept at martial arts and researching choose-your-own-adventure novels. After a colleague shoots her twice, nearly killing her, and then dies, Erma is left with unanswered questions that spur a twisting, semi-surreal plot that unfolds, slowly at first, before plunging into a classic noir hellishness. Erma is viscerally rendered; I disliked her from the get-go but was gripped by a desire to see her triumph against terrible odds. The author is a savagely realistic stylist, notable for pungent dialogue. The book’s blurb mentions Mullholland Drive; a seemingly bizarre feature is a parallel narrative inside a computer game, but even this feature resolves itself intelligently. Overall, The Spiral is a coruscating, white-knuckle adventure in adept hands, like a plunge into an Arctic ice hole.