Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Annie Proulx, an anti-internet polemic and the tale of Lucie Blackman.

Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx

Writing in the Observer, Geoff Dyer is disappointed with "the story of how a great and ageing American writer came across a 640-acre spread of land in Wyoming, bought it and set about designing and building (more accurately, having people build) her ideal house on it." Despite some evidence of Proulx's "observational prowess and gift for verbally harnessing the elements", Dyer discovers that the writing falters without the "human and narrative purchase" that characterizes her best fiction. Consequently, Dyer "had soon had enough of it" and is left feeling that this book "begins suspiciously to resemble a way of covering the spiralling costs" of building a bespoke house.

"The absence of an over-arching narrative structure is the book's weakness," concludes Susan Elderkin in the Financial Times. Depicting landscape, Proulx's writing is "always a treat, the language dense and nutty in the way of a fruitcake". But without a fictional framework, Proulx's "baggy" memoir leaves "the mystery of how the writer begat the writing pretty much intact".

"Bird Cloud" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

In the Observer, Jessica Holland assesses Lanier's argument that "the web - with its anonymously written wikis and multiple-choice expressions of personality on Facebook - is eating away at our very souls." As "an original member of the Silicon Valley set", Lanier is "clearly very well-informed about IT", but his "social and spiritual" assertions "can't help but rely more on intuition." Ultimately, "it's tempting to dismiss it as the anxiety of an ageing innovator" who claims modern America is "dividing itself between a minuscule number of 'computing cloud overlords'" and "a vast majority of 'digital serfs'".

The Independent's Brandon Robshaw also remains sceptical about Jaron Lanier's cyber-age manifesto. Though he finds a certain appeal in the argument that the internet is turning people into "empowered trolls", whose "mob-like mentality" is deadening "individual creativity" and luring the masses into "easy, unthinking grooves", the book is ultimately "too abstract and too techy to make a good book-length read" and would probably be "better as a blog."

People Who Eat Darkness: the Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry

This is a "horrible tale, meticulously told" according to Brenda Maddox in the Times. Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old from Sevenoaks, was working as a bar hostess in Tokyo when she disappeared in July 2000. Her dismembered remains were found in a cave six months later. Parry, who was the Independent's Tokyo correspondent at the time, insists that "those who think that any woman who works as a "hostess" is a prostitute are wrong". Instead, they "offer drinks, charm and conversation" and are urged to go on dinner dates with besotted customers. To go home with a client was "Lucie Blackman's fatal mistake". Parry illuminates the differences between British and Japanese legal systems and reassuringly asserts that in Tokyo "a lone woman remains safer even at two in the morning than in any other world city".

Writing in the Guardian, Blake Morrison is gripped by "a compelling book, 10 years in the making, rich in intelligence and insight". Despite the harrowing nature of the subject matter, it is "heartening" that Parry refuses to engage in "hysteria or demonisation". Instead he is an "open-minded and sympathetic narrator" whose book "sheds light on Japan, on families, on the media, and (in ways that bring back memories of the Yorkshire Ripper case) on the insidious effects of misogyny".

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser