Two Sisters: Åsne Seierstad

★★★★

On 17 October 2013, Sadiq and Sara Juma experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. Their two teenage daughters, 19-year-old Ayan and 16-year-old Leila, left the house as usual in the morning, but never came home. That evening, their frantic parents received an email from the girls, explaining: ‘we have decided to travel to Syria and help down there as best we can… Please do not be cross with us.’ In that one moment, the Juma family’s world shattered. In this impeccably balanced book, journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of what followed, as Sadiq desperately tries to get his daughters to come home. She also looks back, drawing on texts, emails and interviews to understand how two young Norwegian women could be so deeply radicalised without their parents even suspecting. It is a very difficult story to read, and it is harder still to emulate Sierstad’s admirable detachment, but I believe it’s an important book: a rare flash of compassion and humanity in a dialogue that seems to have increasingly broken down.

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The Men Who Stare At Goats: John Ronson

★★½

This is the third of Jon Ronson’s books that I’ve read and probably the most famous thanks to the film based on it; but it’s also the most bewildering. I enjoyed it far less than the other two, The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamedbecause it required me, straight off, to give credit to some absolutely ridiculous things. It reads like absurdist fiction and even now I don’t quite believe that it hasn’t all just been made up. Ronson tells us the story of some very senior people in the US military who start believing that they have very strange powers; and whose principles gradually begin to filter throughout the wider military. Quite frankly, I don’t suppose it’s much of a revelation – given the current political climate – that there are some seriously odd and misguided people in power; but are we really expected to believe this? But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning. Basically, it all begins with these goats…

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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Jon Ronson

★★★★

We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from it.

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Bite-Sized Books

Bite-Sized Books

I’ve recently begun exploring the shorter books available for Kindle, some of which are free with a Prime subscription. There are Penguin Specials and Kindle Singles, along with the odd short story which doesn’t fit into my regular Tor.com series. As these books are often so short, averaging around fifty pages, I can easily read them on my commute and they’ve encouraged me to take a punt on unfamiliar authors or subjects. And the results are mixed. Some of these works give a brief, striking perspective on a problem or a theme; others, as with all books, promise much but don’t quite fulfill. Here is the first of what will probably become another series, documenting my travels through the world of these shorter, bite-sized pieces of literature, history and journalism.

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The Psychopath Test: Jon Ronson

★★★★

A few weeks ago I met up with a friend for lunch and she enthused to me about a book she’d been reading: The Psychopath Test. I was peripherally aware of it, but hadn’t read it. ‘You should give it a go,’ my friend said. But I still felt unwilling: there was one thing that had been troubling me ever since I’d first heard of the book. ‘I don’t think I want to,’ I said awkwardly. ‘What if it turns out that I am one?’ My friend laughed at me: ‘Don’t worry. The fact you’re anxious about it means you’re not one.’ That’s a relief.

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