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9 February 2022

Reviewed in short: New titles by Elizabeth Wilson, Michael Grothaus, Jonathan Katz and Whitney Goodman

Playing with Fire by Wilson, Trust No One by Grothaus, Gangsters of Capitalism by Katz and Toxic Positivity by Goodman.

By Michael Prodger, Sarah Manavis, Emily Tamkin and Zoë Grünewald

Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia by Elizabeth Wilson
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25

Maria Yudina was, supposedly, Stalin’s favourite pianist. He is said to have been so taken by a radio broadcast of her performing a Mozart piano concerto that he ordered her to be woken in the night and taken to a studio to make a record of it for him. But, according to Elizabeth Wilson’s adroit and revealing narrative of Yudina’s life, having Uncle Joe’s eye on her altered her behaviour not a jot. Her religious convictions – born Jewish, she converted to Orthodox Christianity – cost her teaching positions and bans from recording, and she was later prohibited from performing for five years after reading Boris Pasternak’s poems on stage. That she had played wartime concerts on battleships, submarines and for wounded troops was no defence. 

In her music Yudina followed the dictum of the philosopher-theologian Pavel Florensky that “being ‘correct’ does not guarantee the vitality of creation, but contradicts it”. And in life too: she was, Wilson shows, as unswerving in her belief in the importance of music as she was in fidelity to proscribed friends such as Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam.
By Michael Prodger

Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes by Michael Grothaus
Hodder & Stoughton, 304pp, £18.99

It isn’t hyperbolic to say that we should all be fearful of deepfakes – the technology that can convincingly edit videos and images to make people say or do things they’ve never said or done. This is the thesis of the melodramatically titled Trust No One, the first non-fiction book from the novelist Michael Grothaus. It explores how deepfakes work, their ethical and legal issues, how they’re used – in marketing, film-making and porn – and how they will ultimately destroy public trust.

Grothaus warns of the extreme risks of deepfake technology: a deepfaker can make it seem as though a person has starred in porn, or a politician has endorsed their opponent. (He even goes so far as to get a deepfaker to create a video of himself committing a crime.) But Trust No One relies heavily on hypotheticals – that “deepfakes could be used for this, but they haven’t yet” – to make its most important points. It is a book that might have benefitted from being written in ten years’ time, when deepfakes will be more advanced. For now, Grothaus hopes that raising awareness may help mitigate those potential disasters.
By Sarah Manavis

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New titles by James Hamilton, Xochitl Gonzalez, Ben Rawlence, and Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Rozenn Morgat]

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Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire by Jonathan Katz
St Martin’s Press, 432pp, £22

This book is the result of a perfect marriage of author and subject. Jonathan Katz reported from Haiti for Associated Press during the 2010 earthquake and subsequently wrote The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. In Gangsters of Capitalism, he draws on his prior journalistic experiences, travels the world, and delves into archival material to tell the tale of Smedley Butler, the celebrated marine who helped establish America’s empire, fighting in almost every major conflict abroad from 1898 until the eve of the Second World War – and came to turn against imperialism.

Blending first-person reportage and analysis with impressive historical detail, Katz uses Butler’s story to explore war and capitalism in the United States, and to assess the gap between our morals and the lives we actually live. “Perhaps it is all we can do to follow the example of Butler and those who came after him,” he concludes, “trying to come to grips with the realities of our past, and making the reparations necessary for a better future.”
By Emily Tamkin

[See also: Your best ally against injustice? Terry Pratchett]

Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy by Whitney Goodman
Orion, 304pp, £14.99

Manifestation, the practice of believing things into reality, has had a non-ironic resurgence. The mantra is simple: put out “good vibes” and you’ll get good things back. But the psychotherapist and influencer Whitney Goodman has had enough. In her first book she laments the relentless optimism of a world in the grips of a “toxic positivity” epidemic. Goodman argues that people are expected to reside in a constant state of positivity; and if something goes wrong in your life, you’re led to believe it’s because you weren’t being positive enough.

According to Goodman, we are burnt out. Negativity has become shameful. The human condition is full of difficult emotions, and Goodman argues that these need to be felt. She writes simply but poignantly and offers a no-nonsense approach to the pseudo-science of “good vibrations”, with a mixture of experience, case studies and interactive guidance. She encourages the reader to take a more measured approach to life, showing that an existence that prioritises fulfilment and authenticity makes more sense than the relentless pursuit of happiness.
By Zoë Grünewald

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Tessa Hadley, Nadia Wassef, Cradle Community and Penelope Corfield]

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game