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Our Editor's Choice selection this week is Kai Strittmatter's We Have Been Harmonized, an informative (and disturbing) piece of reportage on state surveillance in China. In the accompanying Beyond the Book article, our reviewer explains how the Chinese Communist Party uses cellphone apps to monitor citizens' loyalty.

If you're looking to take a break from the real world, look no further than the absorbing fantasy on offer in our First Impressions selection, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, her first novel since her much lauded debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The novel's protagonist lives in a labyrinth, alone except for a man called "The Other," who becomes increasingly sinister as the plot unfolds.

We also have a new Culture Corner, and information about our giveaway of Natasha Trethewey's stunning memoir Memorial Drive, open until October 5.

Very best,
Davina
First Impressions
Each month we give away books to BookBrowse members who live in the U.S. to read and review. Members who choose to participate receive a free book about every 3-4 months. Here are their opinions on one recently released title.
Piranesi
by Susanna Clarke
Members Say

"I have just finished reading Piranesi for the third time and will buy the book (I received the ebook to review) to have in my library! Yes, that is how much I loved it. Why? Because it is magical and otherworldly. It makes you think about life and it's cycle. The author has written what could have been a rather frightful book into one that is beautifully lyrical, poignant and believable. It reminds us what has come before us in history and gives us an opportunity to experience the good, the bad and the ugly in a way that calls upon our senses. Art reminds us of what was and so it is in this book... I am so glad that I stepped out of my box and read this book. In these most anxious times, my blood pressure was lowered not only once but three times before writing this. Will I read the book again? Everytime I feel fraught with everything, I will escape to The House and it's serenity." - Diane T. (Slingerlands, NY)

"Piranesi is a surreal marvel of a story ... Clarke's novel is full of fabulous imagery and startling revelations and her poetic language and compelling plot make the reader's journey through the story mesmerizing." - Rebecca H. (Bolton, CT)

"This is a novel I will be recommending to my book club, it gave me several hours of true enjoyment and provided escape from my worries as I wondered if Piranesi would ever escape from his world." - Catherine O. (Altavista, VA)
Bloomsbury USA. 272 pages. Published Sep 15, 2020
Number of Reader Reviews: 30 Readers' Consensus: 4.5/5.0
Editor's Choice
We Have Been Harmonized
by Kai Strittmatter
You'd be forgiven if, while reading We Have Been Harmonized, you momentarily mistook it for a modernized reboot of George Orwell's 1984. If it weren't for the intermittent interviews with Chinese executives, since-deleted essays from disappeared academics and quotes from locked up journalists jarring you back to reality, you might be lost in a ludicrous dystopian yarn, bordering on preposterous.

We Have Been Harmonized is the scariest thing I have ever read, far scarier than science fiction. What differentiates this book from nonfiction about past totalitarian regimes is that this is happening -- and globalizing -- right now. After setting this book down, you realize that we are one totalitarian turn away from becoming trapped by our own technological advances. If the Chinese Communist Party gets its way, the systems of repression and control covered in this book will be exported (at a profit, of course) to societies around the world. In fact, many of the technologies discussed already exist in your community. The Chinese Communist Party's goal is not just national harmonization, but hegemonic. Today China; tomorrow the world.
Beyond the Book:
Gamification and AI: Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go
Over the past decade, Artificial Intelligence (AI) research in the United States and China has been at the forefront of state-backed funding. Competition over its development has been described as the modern-day space race, albeit this time Sino-American versus Soviet-American.

Whereas AI allows for constant surveillance and the removal of those who are not yet harmonized (i.e., toeing the party line), enticed participation in propaganda and community surveillance games actually changes how people behave and think, thereby, in theory at least, eventually reducing the need for surveillance at all. China has begun gamifying mobile apps -- one of which is required for all Party members and the other for all citizens (starting in 2020).

The first app, Study (Xi) Strong Country, uses gamification for propaganda consumption. It had over 100 million users as of 2019. The app is filled with Communist writings and the essays of current leader-for-life, Xi Jinping. It logs how long people read these essays and canons, rewarding them with points. Users can also take comprehension quizzes to earn even more points. Of course, everything done on the app is logged by the state. People know this, so they participate and compete with one another to intake more propaganda and party-based rhetoric. Many of us have faked reading content for a boring class or workshop. However, this is a convenience no Party member can afford. They need to pass quizzes to show their loyalty. They need to have the app open for so long each day to demonstrate they are reading the materials. Eventually, using the app becomes habit and gamification keeps people competing more than they would otherwise.
We Have Been Harmonized: An Excerpt
New China, New World
A Preface

The China we once knew no longer exists. The China that was with us for forty years -- the China of "reform and opening up" -- is making way for something new. It's time for us to start paying attention. Something is happening in China that the world has never seen before. A new country and a new regime are being born. And it's also time for us to take a look at ourselves. Are we ready? Because one thing is becoming increasingly clear: over the coming decades, the greatest challenge for our democracies and for Europe won't be Russia, it will be China. Within its borders, China is working to create the perfect surveillance state, and its engineers of the soul are again trying to craft the "new man" of whom Lenin, Stalin, and Mao once dreamed. And this China wants to shape the rest of the world in its own image.
Custom House. Current Affairs. 368 pages. Published Sep 1, 2020
BookBrowse Rating: 5/5, Critics' Consensus: 5/5
Culture Corner
During the pandemic, in-person cultural activities are restricted for all of us, but there are an amazing array of online resources. So, each week we're recommending a handful of experiences. Most are free (although some welcome donations); and some are only available for a limited time, so it's worth checking regularly. 

This week we suggest you explore the rich history of Indian dance with a short introductory video mostly focused on the Bharatanatyam tradition, one of eight dance styles recognized by India's National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama. Sometimes written as one word, sometimes two, Bharata natyam is a modern descriptor consisting of the first letters of bhava (emotions), raga (melody) and tala (rhythm), coupled with natya, the Sanskrit word for dance...
Giveaway
Memorial Drive
by Natasha Trethewey
 
  
About the Book
A chillingly personal and exquisitely wrought memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her former stepfather, and the moving, intimate story of a poet coming into her own in the wake of a tragedy.

Reviews:
"A breakthrough book that artfully balances prose and lyricism as it guides us through unspeakable trauma...A deep examination of memory, race, and racism, subjects that fuel her renowned poetry collections." - Los Angeles Review of Books

"Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being...This is a political book. It is the story of a woman cut down in her prime, about a sick man who imposed his control and had his way, about the larger story of power in America." - Washington Post

"This is a book with a slow, steady build. This is restraint in service to release...Even though you intuit what is coming, the moment you learn of Gwendolyn’s death is as stunning as the moment when Anna Magnani is shot in the street in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City." - New York Times
Ecco. Memoir. 224 pages. Published July 28, 2020
About BookBrowse
At BookBrowse, we believe that the very best books don't just entertain and engage, they also enlighten, wrapping us in their world, giving us a window into the lives of others or a mirror to reflect on ourselves. These are the books we seek out and feature on BookBrowse, both fiction and nonfiction.
Published every Thursday, BookBrowse Highlights is one of BookBrowse's four free newsletters. We also publish Publishing This Week every Sunday; and Book Club News and Librarian News monthly.
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