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14 February 2024

From Lyndsey Stonebridge to Sophie Elmhirst: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Spent Light by Lara Pawson and Moral AI And How We Get There.

By Barney Horner, Will Dunn, Michael Prodger and Tom Gatti

We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love & Disobedience by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Hannah Arendt first encountered the “reality of her Jewishness in the streets and in the classroom”. This sense of outsiderdom defined her life and career as a philosopher – first as a brilliant student, then as a refugee from Nazi persecution, and finally as an exile in the US, where she became famous for her analyses of totalitarianism. In this book, the literary academic Lyndsey Stonebridge lays out Arendt’s remarkable, if frequently shocking, life, and shows how the philosopher spent as much of it as she could thinking deeply.

Despite sounding a little like an Instagram mantra, We Are Free to Change the World is a coherent intellectual biography, daubed with personal details, that feels like the culmination of a long project for an author who has been reading Arendt’s work for decades. But it is also honest about some of Arendt’s intellectual drawbacks – such as her essays on America’s civil rights movement in the early Sixties. Stonebridge intelligibly describes how statelessness, the experience of anti-Semitism and gender-based prejudice stimulated the inquisitive mind of a unique outsider.
By Barney Horner
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £22. Buy the book

Moral AI: And How We Get There by Jana Schaich Borg, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Vincent Conitzer

I am the proud owner of an “Intelligent Shoe Dryer”. It does an intermediate job of drying shoes and has a timer that says “OF” when it switches itself off, but that seems to be the limit of its intelligence. A similar, albeit more complicated, story could be told about AI, in which the assumed “intelligence” can later appear highly questionable; fantastically complicated deep learning networks can repeatedly fail at simple arithmetic, advanced self-driving car systems run people over, chatbots can be gamed to spew offensive garbage.

The problem with judging the “intelligence” of a deep learning neural network is that the people who build them can’t say for sure how they work. This uncertainty allows many writers on AI to claim that it has a yet-to-be-revealed power that will take us to Utopia or dystopia. Perhaps it will. Moral AI takes a much more sensible approach to what we can say we know about AI now, and therefore what decisions we can make about how it should be built and regulated. Too much money is involved for anyone actually to listen, but it’s good to think these things through.
By Will Dunn
Pelican, 304pp, £25. Buy the book

Maurice and Maralyn: A Whale, a Shipwreck, a Love Story by Sophie Elmhirst

In 1973, a bloodied sperm whale hurled itself upwards and out of the Pacific Ocean in its death throes. In all those millions of square miles of water it somehow breached right next to a 30ft boat being sailed by Maurice Bailey and his wife, Maralyn, from Derby. The impact led to a crack, and then a hole “the size of a briefcase”, just below the waterline and the Auralyn began to sink. The couple inflated a life-raft and a dinghy and for the next 118 days they were adrift, trying to stay alive.

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Sophie Elmhirst is a sympathetic and deft narrator whose multi-layered book recounts the story of this couple who decided to leave a benighted England and sail to New Zealand, and the ordeal they faced. On one level, it is an account of a remarkable survival, physical and psychological (they saw seven ships before they were eventually rescued), but it is also the story of contrasting characters – Maurice ill at ease with himself, Maralyn more practical and confident. Above all, it is about the dynamics of a marriage under extraordinary stress. It was not just the fish and sea birds they caught that kept them alive but, as Elmhirst poignantly shows, each other too.
By Michael Prodger
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £18.99. Buy the book

Spent Light by Lara Pawson

A cornflower resembling an elderly aunt’s frail hands. A tick whose harpoon-like proboscis recalls ultra-deep oil drills. A kitchen timer that summons thoughts of Carol Vorderman’s blouse, then the clockwork gassings of Auschwitz. Lara Pawson’s slim, beguiling third book is a memoir in objects. As the narrator’s gaze travels around her house, everything that meets her eye connects to a personal memory or historical event, associations following each other in leaps and bounds.

Pawson has a facility for sensory detail and a bracing candour about her sometimes disturbing desires; as a former foreign correspondent, she also has a command of facts and a rich store of experience. Even when her links are whimsical (after seeing her black knickers drying on a radiator, she cannot escape the thought that she is wearing Hitler’s fringe) they bring moments of revelation. Violence is encoded everywhere: her toilet leads to a reflection on waterboarding; a Bible to Britain’s Boer War concentration camps; a squirrel’s tail to an account of her dog’s kills. But there is also humour and love in this remarkable book, and an appreciation of the life in everything.
By Tom Gatti
CB Editions, 146pp, £10.99. Buy the book

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[See also: Byron’s war on tranquillity]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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