Book Review – Surveillance by Jonathan Raban.

I have no idea where to begin in reviewing this book. It was both a delight and a disappointment to read. One of those books you love and hate at the same time.

Image result for Jonathan Raban Surveillance cover

I expected, from the title “Surveillance” and from the comments of reviewers on the cover of the book…..such as “The finest, most human, most chilling novel to have emerged in response to these desperate times”…and “Security, preparedness, identity and truthfulness are cleverly dissected in Raban’s disturbing story”…..and “Post 9/11, everyone watches and is being watched….In Raban’s black and brilliant portrait of this adopted city, all kinds of sinister forces filter and manipulate the truth. A wonderfully ironic, disturbing take on the un-privacy of modern life” – that it would be more about surveillance, about both government and individuals prying secretly into the lives of others – as they do do in real life. That it would be about how, post 9/11, the government – of not just America but of other western nations – imposed “security measures” on their citizens in the guise of public safety, but were actually restricting their liberty and freedom of thought, movement and privacy. AND in small measures it was. But very small measures.

In general, I enjoyed the way that the story and characters developed. By the end of the book I really did care about the characters and wanted to know more about how their lives progressed…..IF their lives progressed. But it was a story with more questions than answers and the further into the book I went, the more questions were left unanswered. I kept looking at the thickness of the book, and how much I had read, and thinking that the author wasn’t leaving much space to round off the story and bring it to a reasonable conclusion…..and then it ended very abruptly. Whether this was his plan all the time, or if he had just received a call from his publisher telling him his deadline had been brought forward, I have no idea – BUT it was a very disappointing ending and I felt cheated.

The story begins with a “terrorist threat practice drill” in which an aging bit part actor (Tad) plays one of the victims walks us through the scene. The smoke and booms and confusion – but obviously not a real situation. Tad is gay – his partner of many years has died from aids a few years earlier and to fill that void he frequents the conspiracy pages of the internet and has become a very angry and distrusting person. He has become paranoid about the governments secret agenda and takes very little at face value – so in this respect the title of the book IS valid and I thought that the story would concentrate on this aspect. He goes home at the end of the day to his apartment in Seattle where we are introduced to his neighbour – our main character Lucy a journalist who is about to do a piece on a reclusive author who survived the Nazi death camps of world war 2.

Lucy lives with her daughter who is now 11 years old and who was conceived during a one night stand a motel after meeting a stranger in a bar. They live across the hall from Tad….who has become a sort of stand in father/grandfatherly figure for the daughter. Enter the mysterious Mr Lee, a Chinese immigrant who has just become their new landlord. and who soon becomes “interested” in Lucy and her daughter. Meantime Tad is trying to find out more about Mr Lee.

So, we have several story lines on the go. There’s Tad’s paranoia, Lucy’s story on the reclusive author, Mr Lee and his mysterious background, the relationship between mother and daughter, the unknown identity of the girls father……all the characters relationships with one another. Raban weaves a multiple relationship story and poses many questions about truths and falsehoods which, as a reader – and having been dragged through these relationships and side stories – I expected to have some answers to at the end.

The ending comes suddenly but not altogether completely unexpected as it is hinted at along the way. But it does leave multiple questions unanswered and leaves the reader feeling cheated. I don’t want to give away any actual spoilers – just in case anyone still wants to read the book. It is a good story – to a point – and as I said I did feel a connection to the characters and had become concerned about them and what was going to happen to them…..and then that fucking ending. Excuse my language but that’s exactly what I thought as I turned the final page. Definitely a WTF moment!

I’ve had a quick look on Goodreads to see what others thought of the book and it looks like I am not on my own. One reviewer who gave it one star said “Passed onto me by two friends, both of them gave up after the first two chapters, but I thought, oh it can not be that bad. Yes, it was. Should have listened, I wasted my time reading this, no ending, no final, a book you pick up and throw against the wall with frustration that time, was wasted.”

Another one – this time giving 3 stars said “I was all set to give this four stars–the characterization was tight, the plot moved quickly, and the social commentary on living in a surveillance society was timely and non-hysterical. “‘We are all spooks'”, says one of the characters, and it is an apt statement. The daughter tracks her mother’s alcohol intake, the mother investigates the autobiographical story of a writer she’s doing a profile on, the next door neighbor runs down information on the new owner of their apartment building, and of course the government investigates us all. But then the ending just….struck.

Yet another one star rater said “Opens with a bang, literally, as Homeland Security films an attack video in near-future Seattle for a public safety film (uh huh, we believe that right away). Lucy, single mom and freelancer, is tasked to score an interview witha professor who is enjoying critical success for his memoir as an orphan in post-WWII Europe. Lucy lies to get the interview, winds up befriending the guy, and then discovers he might have made it all up. Meanwhile, lucy’s neighbor may be dying of AIDS while developers attempt to purchase the building they live in.
And that is as far as I got, sorry. The sense of menace and paranoia–helped along by car wrecks that may or may not happened–was minimal (but maybe ratchets up later), but I was just bored to tears. The reviews say the end is surprising and will “outrage” many, but i just didn’t care enough to get there
.”

The author Jonathan Raban’s usual fare is travel writing – fact rather than fiction. It may be best if he sticks to that in the future…..or learns how not to let down his audience.

Potrero Hill (and books and bookshops).

Heading west and up hill from the flatlands of the Dogpatch area is the mainly residential Potrero Hill which clings to the curves of the east facing hills, giving it a sunny disposition. The condition and quality of the homes here change with each street and sometimes with each cross street from swanky to shabby. Along with homes, this neighbourhood also has cafe’s and eateries and an interesting local music scene…..plus Christopher’s Bookshop which is on my “to visit” list.

Historically a working class neighbourhood until the gentrification of the 1990’s – you’ll now find a mainly working-professional and upper-middle class, family-oriented scene. And talking of scenes, due to the elevated position you have a wonderful outlook over both the Bay and the financial district skyline. I guess I could have lumped Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch together as the Spanish name for the Dogpatch area was Potrero Nuevo, but as you saw from my earlier Dogpatch post there was enough happening there to warrant a post of its own.

I’m not sure how much there will be here of interest from a tourist viewpoint as it is mainly residential and by San Franciscan standards very quiet…..but we’ll see. One benefit is that there is a Caltrain station here so that means easy access to and from the main city.

When ever we visit cities anywhere in the world, we usually seek out the parks and open green spaces for a break from the hustle and bustle to give us a chance to recharge our internal batteries. Potrero Hill has a few such areas. Mckinley Square, popular with children and dog lovers and contains several levels of trails that make up the official off-leash dog area. The park is pretty much on the crest of Potrero Hill and since my blog is primarily about books and writers, has a literary connection. Part of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel “The Language of Flowers” describes the park.

Published in 2011 The language of Flowers is Diffenbaugh’s first published novel and is about Victoria Jones, an itinerant foster child who gets moved from home to home until at the age of 18 she becomes a flower arranger…..hence the title. According to Wikipedia, “The novel was inspired by a flower dictionary, a type of Victorian-era book which defines what different types of flowers mean”. It’s also love story, which is why I won’t be reading it, but for those who enjoy love stories with a heavy accent on flowers and their meanings…it is most likely a good read. In fact Goodreads (did you see what I did there??? Lol) rates it at four and a bit out of five and says “A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past”.

Around the corner from McKinley Square you’ll find Potrero Hill Community Garden which was established in the 1970s and has a panoramic view of the city. About 10 minutes walk from the Community Gardens is Potrero Hill Recreation Center. Renovated in 2011 – here you’ll find a baseball field, a tennis court, a basketball court, and another dog park. It seems like Potrero Hill residents love their dogs. Likewise, the Jackson Playground at the North Slope also has a baseball field, a tennis court, and a basketball court. And another loosely literary connection…there is a public library which was renovated in 2010 and is located on 20th St. and Connecticut St.

So what else other than homes and parks does Potrero Hill have to offer, I hear you ask? The answer is….not a lot. It’s mainly a residential area with a few shops and cafes to service the locals – which actually makes it quite a good place to visit….WHY? – no tourists and no crowds. From our son and daughter-in-laws apartment, the closest mini-markets within walking distance, of any note – mainly Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are in or along the edge of Potrero Hill so we have ventured into this area quite a few times since our arrival almost a week ago.

To get to Christopher’s Book Store means a steep-ish climb from the Dogpatch up 18th Street to the corner of 18th and Missouri, where you will find a lovely little shop (open every day 10am to 9pm) on the corner with a good variety of stock and a knowledgeable lady owner. The original owner “Christopher” who opened the store in 1991 has a New Zealand connection. Christopher Ellison was from Te Kauwhata (not too far from Hamilton, New Zealand) a very small town of just over 1000 people – serving an outlying area of maybe 10,000 people. He decided that what the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco needed was an independent bookshop. The current owner – Tee Minot – started off working for Christopher back in 1992 and has been here ever since, taking over sole ownership of the shop in 1996. As you would expect of someone who has owned a bookshop for over 20 years, Tee is very knowledgeable about her stock and the area of San Francisco that her shop is based.

The only thing I could even begin to be negative about this shop is that it’s not big enough to have a dedicated reading area. There are just 3 aisles of books – but a good selection. Tee herself said she wished that there was room for a couple of couches in there – sadly there isn’t – otherwise this shop would be just about perfect.

I can buy books cheaper on line but, as I may have mentioned in earlier blog posts, I prefer to support the bricks and mortar establishments – particularly independents – when ever I can. Visiting San Francisco, I wanted to buy a book or two either by San Franciscan writers or featuring stories set in San Francisco. With this in mind, Tee recommended several books/writers and I selected two of them – Rebecca Solnit’s “Call Them by Their True Names” – American Crises (and Essays) printed in 2018 and which I have just started reading.

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Solnit, although born in Connecticut in 1961, moved to California when just a girl where she was educated from kindergarten to graduate school. She’s been an “independent writer” since 1988 and has published over twenty books covering everything from Feminism, History, Politics and Power, Social Problems, Travel, Insurrection, Hope and Disaster. This book however is a series of essays about, as she says, “the war at home” – referring to social injustice, climate change, domestic violence and of course the travesty that is Trump. The people at Goodreads rate this book as a 4 out of 5. I’m only about 20 pages in so far but she writes well – informs rather than preaches – so I will no doubt enjoy it.

The second of my book selections from Christopher’s is David Talbot’s “Season of the Witch”. Which according to the cover “tells the story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 and 1982 – and of the extraordinary men and women who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth and triumph”.

Paperback Season of the Witch : Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love Book

According to the Washington Post “An enthralling and harrowing account of how the 1967 Summer of Love gave way to 20 or so winters of discontent”.

So it should be a good read – at over 400 pages I am going to have to set aside some serious reading time for this one. Talbot was born and raised in Los Angeles, but now lives and works here in San Francisco. He specializes in “hidden histories” where his journalistic training is put to good use.

It scores a high 4 and a quarter on Goodreads but has been criticized for it’s racially singular accounts – being told by a white man basically from a white viewpoint about predominantly white people. I’ll keep an open mind when I eventually get to read it.

My wife Liz bought Jenny Odell’s “How to do Nothing” subtitled “Resisting the Attention Economy”. Unlike my two paperbacks, this is a very nice hard cover book with a colourful dust cover.

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Odell is another local writer, being based just over the bridge in Oakland.

Again this book is a 4 plus rating on Goodreads. “This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world”.

Where better to sit and peruse our new purchases than just over the road and slightly down the hill at Farley’s Coffee. Farley’s have really good coffee, by the way, so if you’re in the area you’ll be doing yourself a favour by calling in for a cup. The prices are much cheaper than in the tourist parts of the city too – a win / win situation. And the barista’s there are friendly and very good at what they do.

There are tables inside where you can sit and work / browse your laptop, or enjoy a bite to eat from their menu. We chose to sit outside in the sunshine beneath the Bottlebrush trees, sip coffee and read. This little seating area is right outside Farley’s door but is actually a kind of mini public park….or “parkette” if you like…where anyone can sit and while away a few minutes of a few hours, with or without a purchase from Farley’s.

Just a block further up the street from Christopher’s – which is quite a steep climb – there are some nice views of the city from this lofty vantage point on 19th Street.

Later on in the morning, passing the back of the library, the shutter doors were open revealing an area dedicated to selling used books – either ex library books, or donated by members of the public. Every book regardless of size, type or condition costs a mere $1. What a bargain. AND never being one to pass up a bargain I bought 4….and my wife bought 2. Our suitcases will be right up to that 23 kilo limit by the time we’ve finished buying books.

My picks were – Randy Shilts “The Mayor of Castro Street” about the life and times of Harvey Milk. A book of Essays edited by Jennifer Lee by American writers about their experiences in Paris – “Paris in Mind”. A pictorial feast of a book “Gertrude Stein in words and pictures” and my final selection was ironically by a guy who lives and works in my town of birth – Sheffield called Simon Armitage “Walking Home” subtitled “A Poets Journey”, which is about is attempt to walk the Pennine Way (the backbone of England).

My wife’s books were a paperback by Marianne Williamson’s “Healing the Soul of America”, and a cookbook by Terry Walters called “Clean Food”which is a nice quality hard cover book.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos of buildings that caught my eye – this time showing the bottom of the hill, back on the flat easy walking streets….and I’ll throw in another shot or maybe two of Christopher’s Books for good measure, since it’s such a great little shop.

Next post will be of the Mission District Murals.