The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Jill Lepore (2014)

A comic-book character who not only has a back-story of her own, but also a fascinating creation story, altogether more interesting than those of the other DC and Marvel universe characters.

It’s an unsettling story, though. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marsten, is the somewhat discredited inventor of the lie detector who spent decades trying to persuade law enforcement authorities to take his rather bogus claims seriously. (That he eventually partially succeeded probably worth a book in itself.) He also had a position as an advisor to Hollywood during on of its periodic moral panics, and had an unusual home life involving a wife and a live-in lover pretending to be his children’s nanny (while actually being mother to some of them).

Despite all this, the women in his life seem to have exerted an enormous influence over his creation, who is far more independent and feminist than anything else in the genre at that time. While Marsten comes across as unbearably creepy to a modern (male) reader, he seems to have tapped into a style of characterisation that had to wait another half a century before becoming mainstream.

5/5. Finished Saturday 23 July, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Missing Cryptoqueen: The Billion Dollar Cryptocurrency Con and the Woman Who Got Away with It

Jamie Bartlett (2022)

A counterfeiting tale for the 21st century.

This is the book of the podcast of the same name. It centres around a banker who decided to start a cryptocurrency, One Coin, that she pitched as being able to transform the finances of those feeling left behind. In actual fact she never actually built the currency at all, just the marketing and trading infrastructure around it that allowed people to feel that their investments had worth. In the process she became entangled with various mafias and ended up on the run – so successfully that one has to consider that she’s dead.

There’s a sub-text to this story that the book doesn’t really explore: what’s the difference between a valuable and a worthless currency? It seems simply to be a matter of belief, that a currency you acquire today will be exchangeable for roughly the same services now or in a month’s time. There’s nothing intrinsic about this, and so cryptocurrencies aren’t a flawed idea because they’re not backed by a central bank, or by gold, or whatever: they’re flawed because this belief can’t be sustained.

So why did people invest? A lot of the hype was targeted specifically at people who were already financially insecure, and believed that. by getting in on the ground floor of the new currency, they’d experience the same dizzying ride as those who first bought Bitcoin – or at least, those who got out at the right time. Buying in on the basis of being able to get out, in other words, so basically gambling – but with a very 21st century mix of “them” not wanting “you” to know about this. Inequality, conspiracy, and magical thinking are all needed to make these scams succeed.

5/5. Finished Monday 18 July, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography

Paul Gorman

A biography of someone with a claim to having been one of the most influential British music producers of the 20th century. I say “claim”, because it’s not always clear how much is reputation is deserved beyond his pivotal role with the Sex Pistols – whose own influence on punk can be disputed.

McLaren seems to have seen himself more as a fashion entrepreneur than as a musician, and indeed seemed to regard everything he did as an outgrowth of fashion in a wider sense. He emerges as a troubled individual who inflicted similar troubles on those close to him: he didn’t seem to have taken his own background as a warning or as a negative example. And it’s hard to decide whether some of his antics derived from a vision of how society could be different, or simply from truculence and a desire for the limelight. Gorman doesn’t dig deeply into these issues, but does a balanced job of showing McLaren’s strengths and weaknesses.

4/5. Finished Sunday 3 July, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Darien Disaster: a Scots Colony in the New World, 1698 - 1700

John Prebble (1968)

An excellent history of Scotland’s attempt to found a colonial empire in the wake of the Spanish, French, and English – and the determined attempts by all three to frustrate this.

The story is impossible to tell without also telling the domestic Sottish and English political history of the time – not least because the two were largely distinct despite the Union of the Crowns. Indeed, the fact that a single king is required to adjudicate the claims of two sets of subjects with different interests is part of the making of the disaster: the English commercial elite are determined not to allow independent Scottish engagement in international trade. The king has to choose a side, and chooses England (while trying to argue to the Scots that he isn’t). This sets the scene both for Scotland to go it alone under considerable restrictions, and for England (and later Spain) to try to crush them.

It was a venture that from the modern viewpoint seems entirely doomed, and not only because literally no-one involved in promoting had ever even visited Darien, and because the leaders never developed a clear idea of who was in charge or what they were to regard as success. The alleged commercial benefits were entirely speculative and based on hearsay; the climate was unwelcoming; and the ability to claim the land legally completely at odds with the realities on the ground, which the Spanish could enforce (although they did so rather ineffectually: one has to suspect because they knew there were no riches to be had). Most of the colonists died, from the journey or from disease rather than from enemy action, and also from abandonment by their leaders.

It’s a book that lacks a certain spark for the reader, and sometimes comes across as too dense. That’s a shame, because Prebble has a good eye for personal foibles that illuminate character, and a very sure touch in explaining the society of the late seventeenth century, which is a period that lies neglected before the better-known Enlightenment and Jacobite eras.

4/5. Finished Saturday 2 July, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

Eliot Higgins (2021)

The history of a still-evolving open-source intelligence collective.

Intelligence collection and analysis used to be limited to governments and a handful of companies. Not any longer: the tools are available on the open internet. Eliot Higgins realises that he can use them to investigate news stories, including the shooting-down of MH-17 over Ukraine. It’s this investigation, in which he and his volunteer analysts manage to argue convincingly that the culprits were Russian-backed separatists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles, that really demonstrates how much information can now be found and cross-corollated. The result is for formation of Bellingcat, an amorphous group of international investigators organised in a way that closely resembles that of an open-source software project, where all that matters is an individuals’ ability and willingness to share findings, and to have them challenged and possibly refuted in the search for the best explanations.

The book was written before the Russian attack on Ukraine, and so will demand a follow-up given Bellingcat’s deep involvement in tracking the conflict and digging-into the details of individual incidents.

5/5. Finished Thursday 16 June, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)