• josephinedejean

Guys. Guys, guys. We have made it!

2020 is over (praise the Lord!) and we are now entering a new year. A year of vaccines and newfound hopes, a year in which I promised myself to actually make this blog into something fun rather than a chore I never get to. In honour of this commitment, I've decided to start the year by going through the books I did read in 2020 - the good, the bad, the ugly - and talk a bit about resetting reading expectations (and being okay with it!)

TL;DR: must-reads include Permanent Record and Educated. You may give The Noise of Time a pass.

What my reading year was like, generally:

2020, for me, was the first year in my life where I decided to set a reading goal for myself. This was because a), I wanted to feel encouraged to actually keep track of what I was reading (this definitely worked - I have a list of books I read, now, yay!) and b), because just like a lot of us, I wanted to read more. At the time, I opted for what I thought would be an easy enough goal to reach (one book a month, twelve books a year), thinking that I was probably going to blast through that, considering my usual reading regimen.

Fast forward to: the worst year in History. In the end, while I did complete the reading goal (I read thirteen books in total), four of those books were re-reads that I've now re-read so much that I hardly think they count. This, I think, was due to multiple issues, chiefly that I read one book in March and then nothing until the end of June. The early lockdowns really wore me down, and with everything that happened in my work and personal life, I must admit I just couldn't focus. This was amplified by the fact that I used to do most of my reading while traveling. With all that time gone, it was a bit hard to fit reading back into my life. All in all, I've decided to be quite honest with myself, but also forgiving. It was a crap year all around, and I suppose expectations in all areas had to be reviewed. I hope that I'll be better in 2021, but we shall see.

All of this is not to say that I am unhappy about the books I did read, quite the opposite. This was, overall, a very good year, reading-wise. It was also, strangely, the year of non-fiction for me.

I must admit that I've never been much of a non-fiction reader in the past but found myself really diving into the genre this year. Out of the thirteen books I read, five were non-fiction. If I take out the re-reads (which I'll talk about in a minute), that actually means that over half the books that I read, this year, were non-fiction. For me, this is absolutely unheard of. Additionally, out of all the books I read, not only was my favourite book of the year a non-fiction book, but so was the runner up. I guess this was just a really odd year all around, so I'll embrace the weirdness.

Now, moving on to the nitty gritty of this year in review:

In January, I read Screwed by Ronnie Thompson, Educated by Tara Westover and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I adored Americanah as much as the next person (obviously, everyone was talking about this book at some point, weren't they?) although I must admit I did find it a bit long towards the end. I loved it, but looking back, I'm just not sure it deserved to be 477 pages.

On Screwed, I will say that a) I found the subject matter quite interesting (although I did disagree with the author on a number of occasions) and b) contrary - it seems - to most people online, I actually loved the writing style in this. It's definitely very crude and a write-like-you-talk kind of book but honestly, I quite liked it. I felt that yes, it had a lot of cursing and harsh words and situations in it, but you could see that a lot of work had actually gone into the prose and sound of the book. I don't think this was as thoughtlessly written as some people seem to think.

This being said, for me, the major problem with this book remained the fact that the narrator is just an unbearable prick. It's non-fiction so I appreciate I probably shouldn't be passing judgment but dear lord, the sheer number of times I wanted to throw the book across the room and shout: 'for the love of god, go take care of your kid, stop blaming everyone else for your problems, stop going on the piss every other night and get your life in order!' While the subject matter was interesting, the personal life of the narrator just drove me mad.

Lastly, in January (notice how good a reader I was, pre-pandemic!), I also read Educated. On that, I will say that it is so, so hard for me to put into words how much Ioved this book. It is not only my second favourite book of the year but it is also without a doubt, on my top ten list of favourite books of all time. I genuinely just tear up thinking about it.

I picked it up, I will admit, because I was told it was a book about escaping mormon fundamentalists. I always have had a strong interest in cults and group dynamics so I knew I would be interested. This being said, this story is so much more than that. It's a book about family, growth, isolation, violence and the very harsh reality of life in rural America. Everything, for every member of this family, is a constant battle for survival. The sheer amount of courage displayed in this story is absolutely incredible. It really highlights the reasons why people living in these conditions feel disenfranchised and turn to either religious fundamentalism or populist political movements. It is such a strong story and I have so much love and admiration for the things that Tara has accomplished. I really struggled on what to pick for my book of the year and the only reason why I didn't pick this is that I think the other book had, comparatively, the same gorgeous quality of writing but also a subject matter that was perhaps a bit more current and "worldly" than Educated. Obviously, while Tara's story did resonate with me on many levels, it is a very US-centric story.

Next up, in February, I read The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I gave this a one star because I don't give zero stars. I just did not get this book. At all. I have no idea what it was trying to say, or why. I skimmed through half of it and have already forgotten the plot. It happens in communist Russia. I remember that the main character spends quite a bit of time playing music and waiting for the lift. Make of that what you may.

In March, I read Une Joie Féroce by Sorj Chalandon. I won't go into this too much as it's a French book and I'm not sure it's been translated, but Sorj is and will always be one of my favourite writers in the world, ever, period. His writing is simply incredible and I will gladly read anything he writes, down to his grocery list. I really loved this book (although it is not my favourite of his - if you only had to read one, I would definitely say go for Retour à Killybegs) and would highly, highly recommend it to anyone who reads French.

As I said earlier, I read nothing until the end of June, when I decided it was finally time for me to get back into the groove. In order to do so, I must admit, once and for all, without any shame because well, it was a crap year, after all: I went back to basics. To what is and always will be my happy place: pointed hats, castles with moving staircases, noseless villains and a series of seven books that truly shaped my childhood. So, yes, I re-read Harry Potter. Not going to apologise for it, it made me happy. I was finally able to open a book again. I went right back down memory lane, got obsessed again like it was 2005, went trawling forums and read fanfiction until the wee hours of the morning after finishing Deathly Hallows. It was 2020, so it was allowed. I devoured Goblet of Fire all the way through to Deathly Hallows and it was lovely. It made me cry, and laugh, and feel fuzzy inside, and I don't regret a thing.

In August, hopping back onto the reading bandwagon, I read The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry. It was alright, I suppose, but didn't leave me in awe either. I also read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee which, to be honest, felt a bit similar. Both books were fine, I enjoyed them, but after studying law for six years and hearing everyone I know tell me what a classic Mockingbird was, I was a bit underwhelmed.

Finally, in September, I read my book of the year: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden. I won't go into too much detail about it (see this post for a complete review) but lord, did I love it. It was well written, important and just an all round fantastic read. As I said, it was really a tie with Educated for book of the year, but I decided this was it because I thought the topic felt like it had more of a global reach.

And, lastly, in December, I read The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton (again, full review here). Generally, it was fine but as I said, it left me feeling like it could have done with a much better editor.


So, now, onwards and forwards, what's in store for 2021? Well, a never-ending TBR, if I'm honest. I'm going to set the reading goal at 14 books, slightly better than last year but without being too ambitious either. I still really struggle to find time to read without spending as much time as I used to in airports or on planes, so I suppose I'd rather set realistic expectations rather than feel crap about not reaching my goals. This is all for fun, after all.

Currently reading: Calypso by David Sedaris which I'm really loving so far, and Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith/Joanne Rowling. The latter because I went to law school and am chronically unable to express an opinion on something I haven't read. I will thus read it, in spite of the controversy. For now, I'm only 150 pages into it, so I can't really report on the trans killer issue, yet. All I can say, for the moment, is that it's bloody long. When will this finish, I'm not sure.

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Genre: Non-Fiction

Themes: Racism, Criminal Justice, Death Row, Death Penalty

Rating: ⭐️⭐️

You should read this if: You are, like me, passionate about criminal justice.

I am frankly quite annoyed at this book. Mostly because the subject matter is so important.

Anthony Ray Hinton, known as “Ray,” was wrongly convicted and held by the State of Alabama on death row for nearly thirty years for a crime that he didn’t commit. If that story sounds familiar, if you feel like you’ve heard it before, it’s because chances are, you have. It happens. All the time. There are dozens of Ray Hintons out there. Sitting there, rotting away in jail over things that they didn’t do.

Now, let me state this for the record: the death penalty is most barbaric monstrosity that we, as a society, ever have consented to. This, regardless of guilt. Believing that ‘an eye for an eye’ is a proper way of administrating justice in through the social contract that we all sign with our justice systems is sickening and despicable. In the United States, We The People have killed, and continue to kill hundreds of men in the name of ‘justice,’ every year. Guilty men and yes, innocent men. Because no, our courts are not fool-proof and not everyone has been gifted with Mr Hinton’s strength of character in fighting the deeply unjust system he was confronted with.

Thankfully, in Western Europe (where I live and am from), we have generally done away with this barbarity. Our courts have even concluded that the conditions on death row in the US are so appalling that they constitute an infraction to article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, an article that prohibits torture [Soering v. United Kingdom, 1989]. We thus refuse to extradite anyone who could be subjected to these conditions in the United States. And, that is a good thing.

However, we must not be complacent. Every year, opinion polls still show large numbers of European citizens would be favourable to the reinstatement of the death penalty “in certain cases.” It is always “in certain cases,” as though the alleged barbarity of particular crimes would somehow justify that our society respond with similar measures. We must never become complacent to that line of thinking that tries to sell us vengeance as a form of justice.

Having said that, regarding this particular book, I am annoyed. Because for such an important subject matter, I wish it had been better edited. Truthfully, knowing his life story, the conditions in which he grew up and his general lack of education, you can’t blame Ray for his poor writing style. It is somewhat a given that a book written by him would sport repetitions, approximations, unfortunate word choice, etc. However, it should have been the work of a good editor to turn the man’s prose into, if not gold, at least silver. It is quite sad that this did not happen.

In The Sun Does Shine, Ray Hinton raises very important themes: the systemic racism in American criminal justice and all across the Deep South (the descriptions of scenes from growing up black in Alabama are particularly jarring in that sense), the link that exists between access to justice and poverty, the failings of underfunded legal aid, the living conditions in prison, and so much more. Some events described truly resonated with me. Him and his best friend having to jump in ditches to hide during their youths. The banging against their cell walls for every convict killed. The smell of rotting flesh. His bizarre prison friendship with a former KKK killer. The dedication of Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who finally got him acquitted.

But unfortunately, these points and strong moments get swallowed up in babbling prose. The book, in many instances, loses momentum due to repetitions, poor storytelling and/or phrasing. I found myself skipping whole chunks of pages and chapters to make sense of the narrative. While I appreciate that not everyone has the writing talents of Tara Westover, I am annoyed that such an important story was allowed to be told so poorly. A good editor (or maybe ghostwriter) should have worked with Ray to make the best of it and better drive the points home.

I have to give this only two stars, but it’s with much disappointment and loads of empathy at Ray’s story, regardless. If you’re passionate about criminal justice or interested in the topic of death penalty, I would still strongly recommend reading this – just know that the writing isn’t the best.

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  • josephinedejean

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Category: Non-fiction

Target audience: adult and possibly woke teenagers

You should read this if: you love magnificent prose and important life lessons

Favourite quote: “It wasn’t that my classmates didn’t care enough to fight, it was that they couldn’t afford to: the system was designed so that the perceived cost of escalation exceeded the expected benefit of a resolution.”

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

If you've talked to me at all in the past few weeks, chances are that you've probably noticed that I’ve been raving about Permanent Record everywhere online. Before I even finished Edward Snowden's book (published by Macmillan around this time last year), I already knew for sure that this would be one of my favourite reads of 2020. It is frankly a very rare occurrence that a book leaves me speechless but when I closed this one up, I had so many thoughts that I truly didn’t know where to start.

First things first, I must say that this is probably the best written piece of nonfiction that I have read since Educated. At times, it is sad, at times it is laugh out loud funny, but it will make you feel all the emotions in between. The prose in Permanent Record is incredibly vivid and I honestly could not put it down. I am not sure whether someone secretly ghost wrote this book or if Snowden wrote it himself (although judging by the emails that he sent Laura Poitras which are read out in CitizenFour, I would guess the latter - the style is strikingly similar) but oh, boy was the writing impeccable. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the subject-topic, I would highly recommend reading this, simply on the face of pure literary quality.

Regarding the book itself, I must warn you that if you’re looking for a detailed analysis of the Snowden revelations and their impact on the world, Permanent Record is not it. While Snowden does go into some detail about the CIA/NSA programmes that he worked on over the years (and is quite good at explaining them - better than some of the reporting that was done at the time, to be honest), this book isn’t so much about the scandal itself as it is about his life and his personal experiences both working for the NSA and becoming a whistleblower. It paints a picture of his upbringing, his decision to work for the American government due - in part - to 9/11 and his later commitment to privacy. This book is - I think - a very successful attempt at answering the question: how do you become Edward Snowden?

Interestingly, some of my favourite anecdotes of Permanent Record regarded Snowden’s upbringing and early days. He describes: his family’s history of working for the NSA and the normalcy that that life had for him, his early love for computers and the beauty of the early days of the internet. I strangely identified with a lot of his experiences here. Although I was never quite a computer geek myself, I recognised the video games and the forums, and the opening up of the world when it all got online for the first time, before the internet got overtaken by money and brands, and marketing tools. As a millennial myself, the early chapters of the book made me feel an odd mix of amusement and nostalgia, which I honestly didn’t expect when buying this.

Later on, Snowden writes about his short-stint with the army (“The army makes its fighters by first training the fight out of them until they’re too weak to care, or to do anything besides obey”) and, of course, his rise within the NSA, before the revelations he made in 2013. I think that what is most interesting about this story is how meticulously planned and premeditated his decision to go public was. This is not a guy who just saw some documents he shouldn’t have seen, ran out of the building with them and sent them on to journalists. The research carried out on the NSA surveillance programmes took him actual years in the making, building tools and exporting documents for months until he hit the point of no return. It was a hard-thought, premeditated and organised plan to come forward, which I think is probably the reason why it had so much impact.

As someone who, personally, has always been fascinated by group dynamics and the reasons why certain people in this world are brave enough to step up, I found this fascinating. One must wonder: why did Edward Snowden come forward when hundreds of NSA analysts with similar access to the programmes didn’t? Why was he the one to do it? Permanent Record explains that with a tale of love and courage, right and wrong, and a sense of purpose in something bigger than ourselves. It does not seek to convince or persuade you of anything, nor does it seek forgiveness. Whichever way you are leaning on this debate, it is also unlikely to change your mind on the matter. What I loved about this book is that it simply exists to be on the record, to show how and why doing the right thing, sometimes, matters.

As a last note, I particularly enjoyed the chapter towards the end which bears the excerpts of his girlfriend's diaries. I think it was important for him not to shy away from the very real consequences that his actions had on the lives of the people he loved.

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