How was lockdown for you? Did you write the next great American novel, nail that Triathlon or lean to play that piano concerto?
My aim was simple, survival with a toddler. We did OK. No-one got ill, we kept our jobs and I’m not buried under a patio, so I’ll count all of those as a win.
One thing I did do during lockdown was listen to audiobooks, because for reasons of time and motivation – I don’t have much of either – I’ve stopped picking up the paper versions.
So here’s my lockdown listens in the order I tackled them
Facebook, The Inside Story by Stephen Levy
An exhaustive story of the Social Network, this was good on the early stuff, in particular founder Mark Zuckerberg’s middle class beginnings and student attempts to create what was then called The Facebook while at Harvard. It also outlines the company’s later ruthlessness in snapping up potential rivals like Instagram and WhatsApp and how it succeeded where others – for example Myspace – failed. But the book struggles to maintain its pace in later chapters, particularly when we reach the 2016 US election and allegations of Russian interference, where things get very complex. However, Levy successfully describes the power and workings of the Facebook algorithm and its ability to keep its users addicted, underlining the fact that reports of the network’s decline are likely exaggerated.
The Great Successor by Anna Fitfield
Next followed this biography of North Korean despot Kim Jong Un. It’s easy to see North Korea as comic and almost a parody of a totalitarian state, but the Great Successor describes a grimly efficient and corrupt regime ruthlessly ruled by a dynasty of autocrats with little regard for the North Korean people. It’s the small details of life in North Korea that make this book fascinating. For example, in Pyongyang, neighbourhood inspectors watch for signs that citizens are watching television after 10pm, with persistent offenders sentenced to time in a labour camp. This is because North Korea state TV finishes at ten, so anyone still watching is likely to be viewing either an illegal imported DVD or, worse, forbidden South Korean TV. Orwellian stuff.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
The best novel I’ve read in ages, My Dark Vanessa is the story of a young woman’s recovery from sexual abuse. That sounds grim, and at times it is, particularly in its detailed descriptions of a college lecturer’s manipulation of his prey and the effects of his behaviour on others. But the book also illustrates the complexity of those relationships, how victims sometimes refuse to see themselves as victims and how they don’t behave how we expect the abused to behave. It’s a book for our times, brilliantly written without compromise.
One Two Three Four by Craig Brown
Another Beatles biography? This one is different. Craig Brown does to the Beatles what he did to Princess Margaret in 2017’s Yes Maam, takes a subject and plays with time and characters to build up a fresh and often funny picture from a number of loosely connected angles. One Two Three Four is great at capturing the essential oddness of the Beatles phenomenon, arguing that Beatlemania was akin to a mass hysteria, particularly in the US where it followed just months after the national trauma that was the assassination of John F Kennedy. It also describes how the death of Brian Epstein allowed malign influences to gain access to the Fab Four, hastening the split of a band whose members were only in their late 20s when it all finished.