June Superlatives

June has been about how to live and thrive in limbo, between one state and another. Doing that successfully requires you to be intentional about a whole lot of things, including what you put into your brain. So although there have been many dinners with friends, glasses of wine and chai tea and gin-based cocktails, WhatsApp messages and perfectly chosen postcards and so much love, I’ve also watched my reading die down. And then it bounced back—such that I cleared 18 books this month—which is, at least, something positive. (I thoroughly sucked at reviewing, but that’s life.)

most diverting: The final two books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, Real Tigers and Spook Street. For about a week at the beginning of the month, reading, sleeping and eating were much harder than I usually find them. Herron’s slick, pacy espionage thrillers (from the point of view of a team of underdogs) were exactly what my brain needed: easily digestible and not too deep. He writes good books anyway, but it’s especially nice to know that they can fill this kind of reading niche.

hardest-hitting: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has worked for decades as a death row lawyer in Alabama, defending condemned men and women free of charge through his nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his writing about the flawed ways in which the death penalty is applied is so calmly, measuredly furious that it is nearly impossible to believe so many states (including my home state, Virginia) still use it. This, too, I read during the week that reading was hard, though I’m almost positive that’s due to personal associations that make me feel comfortable and secure when reading books about the law.


best start: My first Iain M. Banks novel, The Player of Games. Jernat Morau Gurgeh is a member of the Culture, a utopian, anti-hierarchical society of plenty. He’s one of the Culture’s best game-players, and he’s dispatched in this book to the far-off Empire of Azad to play the game that gives the empire its name—and everything else; roles at every level of society are determined by how well you play, and the winner becomes the Emperor of Azad himself. As an introduction to Banks’s science-fictional work, The Player of Games works very well; it doesn’t assume too much familiarity (it was only the second Culture novel to be published), but there’s a level of sophistication to the political maneuvering that I enjoyed. I look forward to more of these; perhaps Use of Weapons next.

most ekphrastic: Edward Dusinberre’s memoir-cum-journey through Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven For a Later Age. Dusinberre is the first violinist in the Takács Quartet, and he writes evocatively not only about the music itself (excerpts are printed within the text, which is extremely helpful) but about the process of making music cooperatively but not hierarchically—a very different endeavour from that of a solo artist, or even an orchestra, which has a conductor to follow. A superb insight into professional musicianship.

book that brought my groove back: The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. It follows the tribulations of Gertie Nevels, a Kentucky hill farmer and mother of five who is impelled by World War II to move to Detroit, where her husband Clovis, a mechanic, gets a job in a steel factory. The rest of the book traces the fallout of that choice, and the corrosive effect of industrialised urban living on a creative mind. If anyone you know still has lingering doubts about the disadvantages imposed by poverty, hand them this. (review)


most intelligent: Gwyneth Jones’s five-minutes-in-the-future novel, Life, which follows the adolescence and adulthood of molecular biologist Anna Senoz, who discovers a sex chromosome phenomenon called Transferred Y which might mean the end of human sexual difference as we know it. It is a novel about sex, and sexuality and gender, but also about science: the everyday practice of it, the hard work and the research and the satisfaction. Life is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read; like Madeleine Thien, Jones does her thinking on a very high level and lets it play out in her fiction through the depiction of ordinary, everyday lives.

best timing: My uncle sent me a sorry-you-broke-up book, which goes to show a) how well my family knows me, or b) how predictable I am. Or both. It was Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller—a memoir of her marriage to Charlie Ross, and its dissolution, and further memories of growing up with deeply eccentric parents on a farm in Zambia. Fuller writes beautifully, and she is so good at gesturing at psychological damage without spelling it out for you.

most underrated: Michael Arditti has been writing novels for years and yet he seems to fly under the radar. I read his book Easter this month. Set over the course of a single Holy Week in a Hampstead parish, it deals with AIDS, hypocrisy, loss of faith, the legacy of the Holocaust, and love, and I really, really liked it. Like a modern-day, slightly grittier Trollope, focusing on the contemporary issues that the Anglican church faces.

hands-down favourites: Two, actually. One was George Saunders’s novel Lincoln In the Bardo, which imagines the night that Abraham Lincoln spent in his eleven-year-old son Willie’s mausoleum, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the place. It’s hot ice and wondrous strange snow, a truly polyphonic piece of work (it helps to read it as though it’s a play, or to think of it as a written-down audiobook) that manages to be both heart-rending and honest, and surprisingly funny in places.


The other was Jeff VanderMeer’s new book Borne, which follows scavenger Rachel in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a five-storey-tall flying bear called Mord, the result of experimentation within the sinister Company. When Rachel finds a piece of biotech in Mord’s fur, she takes it home and names it Borne. From their relationship—semi-parental, semi-best-friendship—comes the book’s emotional core, which is made more poignant by our growing realisation (and Rachel’s resistance to realising) of what Borne is, does, and could be. The dialogue is sweet and goofy and painful, and I dashed through the book in a day. It’s wonderful.

most nearly: After a twenty-year wait for Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally here. While I enjoyed reading it at the time, and was as moved and distressed as Roy presumably wanted me to be by the descriptions of the Indian army’s program of oppression and torture amongst the insurgents of Kashmir, I ultimately felt the novel’s focus was too diffuse; in trying to present us with many different points of view, it failed to provide a strong emotional core. I wrote more about it at Litro (review text here).

most holy-fucking-shit: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, which is coming out from 4th Estate in August. It’s the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who can navigate through thirty miles of rough terrain in a day and shoot a playing card out of her daddy’s hand. Her daddy is all she has, and she loves him, but things are changing… It is astonishing on the psychological dynamics of abuse—that love/hate, life/death, symbiotic/parasitic framework—and there is heart-in-throat suspensefulness. A beautiful and beautifully written book about entering adulthood too soon, with all of the implications about survival and protection and decision-making that implies. I hope it’s huge.

second most nearly: My first Allegra Goodman novel, The Chalk Artist. I still really want to read Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, since I love the promise of a novelist whose work fuses an interest in technological advances with a clear dedication to artistic creativity and (at least in this book) the written word. The problem with this was the prose, which was the sort I once heard described as “medium-roast”, and the level of melodrama reached the ridiculous about halfway through and didn’t abate. If I didn’t already know I want to read her early work, this might have put me off permanently.


party I was late to: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s Costa-winning novel from last year. It’s a good creepy Gothic, suffused with the awfulness of mid-century middle-class Catholics (the narrator’s mother is obsessed with “curing” her mute, disabled elder son Hanny) and with bleak seashore menace, and with potential satanism. I have to confess it left me a little cold, though; that melodrama, again, was too strong, and the pacing of the dénouement, the revelation of horror, felt rushed and diluted. I did read it very quickly, which probably didn’t help.

warm bath book: An odd category for this, but Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre, Balancing Acts, was immensely soothing. He writes with intelligence and style and deep understanding about the text and subtext of plays, and he’s wonderfully witty on actors and directors too, without making the inevitable name-dropping appear too self-satisfied. (I love the way he introduces Ben Whishaw, whom he first sees as a minor character in the initially disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) And Hytner on Shakespeare is superb; the book is worth its price for the sections on Othello, Hamlet and Much Ado alone.

most fun to argue with: Tracy Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare novelisation series, New Boy, her take on Othello. The choices she makes about how to approach and modernise the story seem to me superficial; I don’t believe that she sat down with the play and thought deeply enough about character or motivation, or perhaps she did but wanted something that would hit all the notes a casual reader might remember from doing the play at A-Level thirty years ago. If you ignore the question of whether the book as it’s framed has any merit as a response to Shakespeare’s ideas, it’s a clean and stylish piece of work, but I’m not sure that’s enough. (review)

most apt timing: A new debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, called What We Lose, of which I got a proof copy from work. It’s written with such urgency and clarity that it feels like a memoir, and it is all about loss – of parents, of lovers, of friendships – and displacement: what does it feel like to be neither South African nor American, neither white nor black? Short, fragmentary and strangely soothing; it’s out in July and I really recommend it.

up next: I’m reading Francesca Segal’s new novel, The Awkward Age, about a blended Anglo-American family whose teenagers seem to hate each other, and so far it’s wonderful: funny, observant, with wonderful casual descriptions of people and places.


The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture

On September 11, 2001, I was nine years old. Halfway through the morning, the day school for nerdy kids that I was attending at the time told us that parents’ evening–scheduled for that night–was cancelled, and gave us all letters to take home. Thrown by a change in routine, we demanded to know why. No one would tell us much of anything, but a fifth grader at recess let slip something about a terrorist attack in New York. I had a very limited grasp of terrorism as a concept; I had watched a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie where they trained as spies and had to go through a training simulation involving “terrorists” wielding guns that produced nothing more threatening than bubbles. I couldn’t understand why a clearly harmless bubble-gun incident in a place a million miles away (we lived in Virginia) was such a big deal. My mother, to her immense credit, explained everything to me as straightforwardly as possible when she picked me up that afternoon. She gave me names (al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, World Trade Centre) that became part of the fabric of my childhood. She didn’t lie. When we got home, she let me watch the television coverage that was playing on loop on all the major networks, or at least she did until they started showing the jumpers, and the audio of the helicopter pilots, swearing and weeping as they tried and failed to save someone, anyone, from the top floors. It was a defining day in my childhood–hell, in my life–but I didn’t realize the extent of that until a few Christmases ago, when I was back home for the holidays and sorting through a bunch of old notebooks. I found one that I’d had as a nine-year-old: in the middle of it, I’d covered pages and pages with drawings of stick people leaping from burning buildings.

I mention this to emphasize that trauma–even trauma you don’t know about–causes people to do and justify things they would never ordinarily consider. Dianne Feinstein, who was the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, notes this in her foreword to the Committee’s report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program:

I have attempted throughout to remember the impact on the nation and to the CIA workforce from the attacks of September 11, 2001. I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield…Nevertheless, such pressure, fear, and expectation of further terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security…Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of US law, treaty obligations, and our values.

This may be all you need to know. The story of foreign-hosted “blacksites”, renditions, the water board, and so on, is familiar to us now. I would recommend, however, that if you’re a US citizen, or the citizen of a country that participates in friendly diplomatic relations with the US (because there are implications attached to the countries you choose to be friendly with), you make an effort to read the whole thing. Some of it may surprise you.

For instance: there were eight “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Department of Justice in 2002, including various versions of slapping, the water board, and “walling”, whereby an interrogator wraps a towel around a detainee’s neck (to prevent whiplash, apparently) and slams him into a concrete wall. Sleep deprivation, particularly standing sleep deprivation, where you shackle a detainee’s hands above his head for hours so that his discomfort prevents him from sleeping, was also approved. So far, perhaps, so legal: unsavoury, perhaps, but not actually negligent. Except for this: CIA cables and records suggest that the officials conducting these interrogations had often been neither trained nor certified as CIA interrogators. What that means, practically speaking, is that detainees were being physically harmed by people who had never been taught how to create the balance between discomfort and pain. Discomfort may be inflicted; “lasting physical or psychological damage” may not. In theory, techniques like walling and sleep deprivation only cause discomfort. (I would argue this, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume it to be the case.) In practice, detainees did suffer physical damage (like Abu Zubaydah, whose gunshot wound sustained during capture was allowed to become dirty and infected as a result of prioritising his interrogation over his medical care.) Two detainees who had each sustained a broken foot were shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, forcing them to put weight on their injured feet. “Rectal rehydration” was used on several detainees, such as Ramzi bin al’Shibh, who went on hunger strike. The rehydration was applied in such a way as to cause injuries that, one medical official reported, are congruent with those caused by sexual assault; indeed, since forcible anal penetration constitutes rape, you could easily argue that the CIA engaged in retributive rape of detainees on hunger strike. In addition, the officer in charge at Detention Site COBALT (a code name; this was a “black site” prison hosted by an unnamed foreign government) was a junior CIA official who had previously been assessed as immature, violent, and unstable. Under this officer’s command, one COBALT detainee, Gul Rahman, died, probably of hypothermia after having been shackled to a freezing concrete floor wearing only a shirt. No reprimands were issued; the officer in question received a $2,500 bonus for “consistent good work”.

All of this is horrible enough, but public and media opinion, as well as government policy, during the mid-2000s was mostly positive about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques. This was due primarily to what the Report calls “inaccurate representations” from the CIA during briefings to other government offices. In common parlance, this is known as “lying”. The two most frequent justifications for the use of enhanced interrogation were: 1) it produced information that could not have been acquired in any other way, and 2) the information thus acquired “disrupted terrorist plots” and “saved hundreds or thousands of innocent lives”. These assertions are demonstrably untrue. Cited instances include the Karachi Plot, which was uncovered by Pakistani law enforcement before the CIA took custody of any of the detainees involved, and the Jose Padilla/”dirty bombs” plot, which the CIA was investigating before its detention and interrogation program even started. Additionally, the idea that information gathered through enhanced interrogation saved lives is, in many cases, inaccurate: the “Second Wave” plot, for instance, was judged by CIA analysts to be “amateurish”, “defective”, and probably infeasible at the time it was uncovered. (It was not, by the way, uncovered thanks to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.)

The great virtue of the formal Senate Intelligence Committee Report is that it backs up its findings with thousands of footnotes and the dedicated bibliographical rigour of an academic paper, whilst also maintaining an engaging and totally non-emotive narrative flow. No reasonable person can accuse this document of being propaganda or of being politically biased; the Committee is bipartisan, composed of both Republicans and Democrats, and the research involved sorting through over six million pages of documents in a CIA-approved facility. It was not undertaken lightly, nor is it attempting to prove a point. Its scrupulously legalistic language affirms this, but it remains readable (something I was worried about; I don’t absorb large amounts of statistics very well.) It is a piece of work of which the US Government can (for once) be proud, and reading it constitutes a civic duty–we’re lucky that Melville House publishers have volunteered to bring it to the trade paperback market. Don’t miss it.

N.b.: Due to the potentially controversial nature of this post, I’ll be monitoring the comment thread and reserve the right to remove comments (or freeze the thread). This is not because I want to censor anyone’s right to free speech; it’s because the law does not oblige me to put up with other people’s bile.