Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Catherine O'Flynn, Miguel Syjuco and Jackie Kay's autobiography.

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn

"Catherine O'Flynn's narratives of urban disenchantment answer the challenge for novelists to take the ordinary and make it compelling," writes Rachel Hore in the Independent on Sunday. "In [this, the author's] second fictional outing, a regional TV studio becomes a symbol of the awfulness of modern mass culture."

Frank Allcroft, a forty-something Birmingham newsreader with a morbid interest in the city's dead, is led on a trail to solve the murder of his predecessor, Phil Smethway. "Grim themes, these," writes Hore, "but they are leavened by a flow of laugh-aloud satire" - as when a carpet showroom advert on the radio is described in meticulous, deadpan detail.

For Olivia Laing, however, writing in the Observer, the Costa First Novel Award-winner's evident gifts "seem to have abandoned her here. The News Where You Are is marred, despite its obsession with graves and subterranean shopping centres, by a strange lack of depth. There's a flimsiness to the characters and the plot is contrived. The narrator seems almost addicted to metaphysical pronouncements, but their baldness diminishes their impact."

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

"Ilustrado," writes the New York Times' Raymond Bonner of the Man Asian Literary Prize- winning novel, "is being presented as a tracing of 150 years of Philippine history, but it's considerably more than that. Just as the country is searching for its identity, its author seems to be searching for his own."

"In a daring literary performance, Syjuco weaves the invented with the factual, putting himself directly into his own fiction." The author's protagonist shares his own immigrant background and many of own life experiences, not to mention his eagerness to expose the corruption endemic in elite Filipino society.

For Angel Gurria-Quintanam in the Financial Times,"beyond Ilustrado's furious skewering of Filipino elites is writing that bristles with surprising imagery." It is, she opines, "an unruly and energising novel [that] pushes readers into considering matters of authenticity, identity and belonging."

But for Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Observer, "many if not most of the narrative mechanisms ... don't actually work." For him, none of the book's multiform elements - "pseudo-autobiography, broad comedy [or] standard genre-movie motivation ... begin to mesh.." And neither Salvador, the political writer murdered at the start of the story, nor his student-acolyte Miguel who tells it, ever "comes to life."

Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey by Jackie Kay

"As a gay single mother of mixed race, brought up by communist adoptive parents in Glasgow, who walks with a slight limp when she's tired... Jackie Kay ticks every conceivable box"; so writes Daisy Goodwin in the Sunday Times. "But this is no solemn Roots-style search for identity," Goodwin opines, "but a clear-eyed, witty and unsentimental account of the push and pull between nature and nurture."

"Red Dust Road is a fantastic, probing and heart-warming read," agrees Bernardine Evaristo in the Independent on Sunday; "It opens up the conversation around adoption beyond Kay's own personal narrative." "Like the best memoirs," Evaristo writes, "this one is written with novelistic and poetic flair."

 

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Doing a Radiohead: how to disappear online

The band has performed an online Houdini in advance of its ninth album – but it’s harder than it looks. 

At the beginning of May, the band Radiohead’s web presence – well, its Twitter, Facebook, and website, at least – went offline.

Lead singer Thom Yorke has repeatedly criticised streaming, and the future of online music in general, and it's clear that his opinion fed into this month's decision to reject social media in favour of sending individual cards to the band's fans in the post. 

However, it’s also a clever publicity stunt in the run up to the rumoured release of the band's ninth album, since it plays into a growing paranoia around the lives we live online, and quite how permanent they are. In reality, though, Radiohead has done a pretty terrible job of disappearing from the internet. Its Facebook and Twitter accounts still exist, and widely available caching services actually mean you can still see Radiohead.com if you so wish. 

These are the steps you’d need to take to really disappear from the internet (and never be found).

Delete your acccounts

Radiohead may have deleted its posts on Facebook and Twitter, but its accounts – and, therefore user data – still exist on the sites. If this was a serious move away from an online presence, as opposed to a stunt, you’d want to delete your account entirely.

The site justdelete.me rates sites according to how easy they make it to delete your data. If you only hold accounts with “easy” rated sites, like Airbnb, Goodreads and Google, you’ll be able to delete your account through what justdelete.me calls a “simple process”. JustDelete.me also links you directly to the (sometimes difficult-to-find) account deletion pages.

Failing that, delete what you can

If, however, you’re a member of sites that don’t allow you to delete your account like Blogger, Couchsurfing or Wordpress, you may be stuck with your account for good. However, you should at least be able to delete posts and any biographical information on your profile.

If this bothers you, but you want to create an account with these sites, Justdelete.me also offers a “fake identity generator” which spits out fake names and other details to use in the signup process.

Go to Google

Search results are the hardest thing to erase, especially if they’re on sites which published your details without your permission. However, thanks to the European Commission “Right to be forgotten” ruling in 2014, you can now ask that certain search results be deleted using this online form.  

Ditch your smartphone

Smartphones tend to track your location and communicate with app and web servers constantly. For true privacy, you’d want to either disconnect your phone from all accounts (including iCloud or Google) or else get a basic phone which does not connect to the internet.

Give out your passwords

The artist Mark Farid decided in October 2015 to live without a digital footprint until April 2016, but was aghast when he realised quite how often our data is collected by our devices. As a result, he decided to live without bank accounts, use a phone without internet connectivity, and use an unregistered Oyster.

When I saw him speak at an event just before his off-grid experiment was due to begin, he announced that he would also be handing out the passwords to all his online accounts to the public. The kind of “bad data” which randomly hacked accounts would show would actually make him less traceable than a radio silence – a bit like how words written over other words mask them more than simply erasing them or scribbling on them would.

Accept that it probably won’t work

Even if you managed all this, the likelihood is that some of your daily activities would still leave a trace online. Most jobs require internet activity, if not an internet presence. Bank accounts are, let's face it, fairly necessary. And even Radiohead will, I’m willing to bet, reappear on the internet soon after their album arrives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.