Why Orwell Matters

Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens9780465030491

publication date: 2002
pages: 211
ISBN: 0-465-03049-1

Two historical writers were presented in Christopher Hitchens’s “biography” – it’s really more of a collection of essays – about George Orwell. Orwell, the subject of the work, was most famous for his anti-totalitarianism books Animal Farm and 1984. The book also displayed Hitchens, who was most famous, perhaps, for his support of the Iraq War after 9/11 and his screed against saintly Mother Theresa.

According to the title, one of the purposes of the book was to explain why Orwell and his writings were still relevant to the 21st Century. If that was Hitchens’s goal, he didn’t always succeed. And, in fact, he went about it in a very odd way. Hitchens spent much of the book analyzing others’ opinions of Orwell. Often, these opinions were dated and obscure, which made Hitchens’s analyses of them even more dated and obscure.

For example, in the chapter “Orwell and the Left,” Hitchens attempted to show how Orwell’s ideas have interacted with the ideas of those who think of themselves as left of center. To do this, he focused on negative quotes about Orwell and why these quotes were wrong. Perhaps that could be a worthwhile exercise, but the quotes he chose were from decades before this book’s publication. The earliest was from 1955 and the most was recent was from 1984. This meant that the people and topics discussed were esoteric, as even Hitchens admitted. For example, here was one of Hitchens’s “take downs” of an anti-Orwell quote from 1960, which contained names and subjects that I should have Wikipedia’d, but didn’t:

To Edward Thompson one might respond – arcane though the argument now seems – that if George Orwell had not mentioned him in about two dozen essays, the very name of Tom Wintringham might very well have been forgotten.

As astute as this observation by Hitchens might be, it didn’t really demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Orwell.

One thing the text did well was present Orwell in an objective or judicial light. Although Hitchens thought that Orwell was often correct, he wasn’t afraid to discuss when Orwell was wrong. Hitchens emphasized Orwell’s unacceptable aversion of homosexuality. Hitchens also recognized Orwell’s ungenerous attitude toward women, at least as it was expressed in Orwell’s novels. As succinctly summarized by Hitchens:

Every one of [Orwell’s] female characters are practically devoid of the least trace of intellectual or reflective capacity.

Generally, Hitchens’s commentary, whatever its stripe, was less interesting than the Orwell passages he quoted. So, although Hitchens’s analyses were not always compelling, I was still struck by the relevance of Orwell’s decades-old prose. In fact, I began rereading 1984 the day after I finished this book. As for Why Orwell Matters, I’d give it a

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

Yale Review of Books
Free Williamsburg
la-articles blog

Harpoon

Harpoon: Into the Heart Of Whaling by Andrew Darby9780306816291

publication date: 2008
pages: 300
ISBN: 978-0-306-81629-1

The full title of this book was Harpoon: Into the Heart Of Whaling. So, when I picked it up off the shelf at the library, I expected a history of whaling and a description of global whaling practices. Instead, what I got was a screed against hunting whales for most any purpose. The book wasn’t a history of whaling but more a list of reasons against it.

The author’s obviously-not-objective viewpoint sometimes made me question the accuracy of the events he was presenting. For example, he talked often of the environmental group Greenpeace and its work disrupting whaling fleets. Greenpeace boats attempted to stop whale kills by surrounding the whaling ship and attaching themselves to it. I didn’t have much prior knowledge of these action and, to me, Greenpeace’s behavior seemed radical and maybe even unnecessarily dangerous. But, instead of objectively retelling these events, Darby gave breezy accounts from Greenpeace’s point of view that concluded, for example, by lamenting the fact that photos taken “lacked fire.”

The book’s cause was also not helped by Darby’s poor and confusing writing. Darby’s writing was often jumbled or unclear. I had to reread a lot of sentences. Here was his blasé account of an accident on a whaling ship, which I had to read a few times to realize that yes, a horrific calamity had occurred:

A few days later [Japanese whaling ship] Nisshin Maru turned up in the Ross Sea, 1000 kilometres away from [the nearest Greenpeace vessel]. Around 6 am on 15 February the ship’s captain phoned the bemused Wellington rescue centre to say the ship was on fire, most of its crew had evacuated, and one was feared dead. . . There was no more whaling, no chance of Greenpeace intervening [in a hunt] or of recording the whaling.

Darby’s bemoaning Greenpeace’s lack of acceptable subject matter for recording, and not his bemoaning the loss of a human life, could have been because the life at stake was a Japanese whaler. The book was vaguely and eerily anti-Japanese throughout. Darby discussed Japan’s reputedly violent and militaristic attitude. At one point, he wondered if the supposed tendency of Japanese whalers to hunt inhumanely stemmed from the poor treatment of POWs in Japan in World War II.

Notwithstanding all the aforementioned flaws of the book, it was obvious Darby had done a lot of research on this topic. The book was sometimes informative. A few of my assumptions about whaling – not that I had a lot – were effectively challenged. However, the informative or compelling aspects of the book were not enough for me to recommend it.

2/6: many problems

Other reviews:

Earth Island Journal
Green Lifestyle
Olly Zanetti on Pop Matters

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer9781571313560

publication date: 2013
pages: 390
ISBN: 978-1-57131-356-0

This book made me want to change my life. Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote with such poetry and persuasion that I was often moved to her way of thinking and, sometimes, moved to tears.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer combined her PhD-level botany expertise with knowledge and attitudes of American Native Indians in order to write about plants and our failed relationship to the land. She often discussed pollution, global warming, and human exploitation of natural resources. She also included stories from her own life as someone with Potawatomi ancestry and as a mother.

Kimmerer’s writing was often very beautiful, even when she was discussing a weighty or controversial topic. For example, here is her description of a shopping mall that she was observing:

We have constructed an artifice, a Potemkin village of an ecosystem where we perpetuate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh, not been ripped from the Earth. The illusion enables us to imagine that the only choices we have are between brands.

The book’s logical presentation of beautifully written ideas often convinced me of Kimmerer’s points. For example, this passage, in which she linked together the American war in Iraq with the conservation work she did ferrying breeding salamanders from one side of a busy highway to another, helping the salamanders avoid getting run over by a vehicle:

The carnage on this dark country road and the broken bodies on the streets of Baghdad do seem connected. Salamanders, children, young farmers in uniform – they are not the enemy or the problem. We have not declared war on these innocents, and yet they die just as surely as if we had.

There were many times when I was convinced or moved by Kimmerer’s words. However, the book was flawed. It was dense and sometimes slow. Kimmerer’s writing was often repetitive, as though I was reading a collection of essays rather than a cohesive book. I also disagreed with some of her ideas, including an assumption she seemed to have that only those people who thought as she thought could behave in a moral or ethical way. Additionally, she sometimes romanticized what life as an American Indian was like.

Further, there’s the issue that she was largely preaching to the choir. I was often enlightened or persuaded by something Kimmerer said, but I also already agreed with many of her ideas. How would a more skeptical reader – someone who celebrates capitalism or doesn’t trust the science of climate change – react to Braiding Sweetgrass? I’m not sure, because I’m not that person and because her arguments made so much inherent sense to me. I can’t imagine anyone being harmed from reading this book, however, and there were many benefits to be gained: from being moved by the poetic language to wanting to joyously reconnect with the Earth that has given us so much.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

Star Tribune
Brevity
Story Circle Book Reviews

A House Of My Own

A House Of My Own: Stories From My Life by Sandra Cisneros9780385351331

publication date: 2015
pages: 400
ISBN: 9780385351331

The person who recommended this book to me absolutely loved it. She spoke about the deep connection she felt to the book: as though she was reading her own memoir, as well as the author’s. A House Of My Own did not spark the same joy in me. I thought it was just fine, but not necessarily anything I would recommend to someone else.

A House Of My Own was a collection of essays, written over decades by the author, Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros is a Mexican-American writer, most famous perhaps for her book The House On Mango Street. Much of A House Of My Own revolved around houses: Cisneros’s, her parents’, her friends’, strangers’. Cisneros also spent a lot of time discussing was it’s like to be a daughter, a Mexican-American, and a writer; sometimes she delved into those topics simultaneously.

The essays were presented largely chronologically and the book got better as Cisneros’s writing became more mature. The book became tighter and more consistent. However, I still often found the writing repetitive, uninteresting, or even puzzling. The essays repeated the same themes, anecdotes, and witticisms. Also, I found Cisneros’s myopic view of the world hard to relate to. For example, she accompanied a friend to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting “out of curiosity.” While there, she heard “testimonies of incredible pain, of humiliations that would knock out anyone.” After listening to people pour their heart out as a step in their journey of recovery, what does Cisneros take away from the meeting? That she needs to move, that she needs a new house.

Almost all the stories, even those that were about other things, were about Cisneros. It’s her memoir, after all. I just didn’t find Cisneros, or Cisneros’s ideas, that interesting. I was probably not the target audience: I have no desire to own my own home, I don’t think of writing in grand terms, and I’ve never read any of Cisneros’s other books.

However, there was some absolutely beautiful writing. In a passage about the musician Astor Piazzolla, Cisneros described his music like this:

I think Piazzolla’s music demands you dance alone, preferably under the stars. After I’ve written the there’s no one about to make me feel silly, I like a glass of wine as plush as the menstrual wall, a cigar like the kind my grandfather El Coronel smoked, and Piazzolla.

Her writing was also sprinkled with insights, such as these sentences, about the death of her father:

Whenever anyone discusses death they talk about the inevitable loss, but no one ever mentions the inevitable gain. How when you lose a loved one, you suddenly have a spirit ally, an energy on the other side. . .

Although the book did not impact me in any striking way, it certainly had some rich writing and delightful passages. Also, I know of at least one person who thoroughly loved it. Therefore, I think A House Of My Own was:

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Latino Book Review
Harvard Review
Dallas News

So How Long Have You Been Native?

So How Long Have You Been Native? by Alexis C. Bunten41oq9wztmil-_sx326_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2015
pages: 251
ISBN: 978-0-8032-3462

In this book, the author presented her experience working in the Alaska tourism sector as a tour guide for a Native Alaskan company, which explicitly showcased the Indian heritage of the town of Sitka, Alaska. The author, an anthropologist, wanted to faithfully represent what life was like as an Alaska Native tour guide. She recounted her participation, and the experiences of her co-workers, while providing historical, psychological, and academic context. Beyond retelling what happened to the author, the book dealt with many topics, including native identity, labor politics, psychology, capitalism, and history. Although I don’t know this for sure, I believe the book began as Bunten’s dissertation and then was expanded to book length.

Bunten’s writing, as an attempt to faithfully recreate her encounters, was very detailed. Generally, I found the details interesting and enlightening, as in this passage about cruise ship tactics:

. . . cruise lines have a history of doing whatever it takes to make local communities comply with their demands by preying on undiversified economies that come to depend upon the tourist dollars cruise ships bring. In 1993, Whittier, Alaska, the only cruise ship port inside the famed Prince William Sound, introduced a one-dollar per passenger head tax. Rather than pay the head tax, Princess Cruises diverted its ships from Whittier to Seward, Alaska, where there was no head tax. Princess Cruises only agreed to return to Whittier in 2004, two years after the city repealed the head tax.

However, I could see how some readers would find all the details to be repetitive, unnecessary, or dull, as in this passage about what Bunten and her co-workers did after their initial job training:

After job training officially ended, we each checked out from the back office a Tlingit [Indian]-style button vest and a rain jacket with Tribal Tours’ logo to wear over the black slacks and polo shirts purchased with our own money. . . Although the uniform physically marked our identities as Tribal Tours’ workers, it also represented a shift in our thinking about our responsibilities as workers.

Even through the repetitive and sometimes clunky writing style, Bunten introduced lots of interesting and insightful facts and passages. She also did not shy from calling things out as she saw them, from the Russian and American genocides of native Indians to the shady behavior of a co-worker. This made for a usually engaging read.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever felt frustrated by working in a service industry. I would also, of course, recommend it to anyone who has an interest in native studies or labor politics. So How Long Have You Been Native? was a compelling read that presented an important perspective.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Tribal College
Anchorage Daily News

1491

1491 by Charles C. Mann, second edition9781400032051

publication date: 2011
pages: 541
ISBN: 9781400032051

The title of this book came from the year immediately before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Charles C. Mann wanted to show what life was like for the people in the Americas before European contact. The book, originally published in 2005, was very popular. I was reading the second edition, published in 2011. After reading it, I understood why the book was popular and why it warranted a second edition.

Mann wasn’t just describing American Indian life in 1491. He also was attempting to show why our modern conceptions of pre-Columbian peoples are wrong. He had three main ideas about the American Indians before European contact. First, that they were numerous and the Americas were densely populated. Second, that the native peoples’ societies were old and complex. And third, that American Indians manipulated the land around them to suit their needs and desires.

Mann used extensive research to support his ideas. He quoted academic papers, interviews, and primary sources. He also included evidence and sources that contradicted his own ideas. Notwithstanding this inclusion, most of his arguments were effectively convincing. For example, Mann argued that the number of Indians killed by European diseases was extraordinarily high: perhaps 9 in 10 killed within 200 years of contact. His explanation for this was clear and persuasive:

When humans and domesticated animals share quarters, they are constantly exposed to each other’s microbes. Over time, mutation lets animal diseases jump to people: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes human measles, horsepox becomes human smallpox. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in constant contact with many animals. They domesticated only the dog; the turkey . . .; and the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck and the guinea pig . . . .

Mann then went on to explain that when the Europeans brought domesticated animals, especially pigs, to the Indian homeland, Indian immune systems were not prepared for animal diseases, and some communities experienced death rates of 96 percent.

Mann not only provided compelling arguments for his theories, he also included interesting and enlightening details about American Indian life. For example:

The Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy – but they did not use the wheel. Amazingly, they had invented the wheel but did not employ it for any purpose other than children’s toys. Those looking for a tale of cultural superiority can find it in zero; those looking for failure can find it in the wheel. Neither line of argument is useful, though. What is most important is that by 1000 a.d. Indians had expanded their [agricultural] revolutions to create a panoply of diverse civilizations across the hemisphere.

Although 1491 was sometimes dense, it was routinely interesting and presented an innovative and compelling picture of the Americas before European contact.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

New York Times
Root Simple
Foreign Affairs

House Of Rain

House Of Rain by Craig Childs9780316067546

publication date: 2006
pages: 496
ISBN: 978-0-316-60817-6

In House Of Rain, Craig Childs presented a piece of reportorial nonfiction, interwoven with narrative travelogue. For several seasons, Childs trekked the southwestern U.S. in order to discover for himself the world of the native people who inhabited that land before Europeans. Childs moved through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and northern Mexico, often on foot, to follow the centuries-long migrations of a people he usually called “Anasazi.” There is some controversy surrounding the term Anasazi, both because there is disagreement about how large their territory actually was and because Anasazi, a Navajo term, can be objectionable to modern-day Pueblo people – who instead may use the term “Ancestral Puebloans.” Childs used this phrase sometimes, along with another – Hisatsinom – that is used by contemporary Hopi. Childs explained his use of the word Anasazi and used other words when he thought it was appropriate.

House Of Rain described Childs’s travels as he explored cliff dwellings, seemingly uninhabitable gorges, great Anasazi kivas, and active archaeological digs. His travelogue writing was compelling, although often pretentious. A good example was this passage, when Childs was exploring Anasazi construction on what is now a national park:

A cascade of flute music emanated from speakers tucked among the ceiling beams. I stood still for a moment, a little surprised, recognizing immediately that the music was played not on a Native American flute, but on a traditional Japanese shakuhachi. . . . This kiva was tangled in eclectic ancestry, unrelated histories passing in and out of each other, brought together by this place. What was it Einstein said, that time and space are the same entity? Does that mean that if you stand in one place and are a keen enough observer, you can see clearly through time’s entire lineage?

His discussions of the Anasazi people could also be self-serious or extravagant, but he did present many interesting facts about their daily lives and viewpoints. Here was his discussion of Kinishba, a vacated Anasazi compound:

I sensed manners and social regimentation in the way the site was laid out. It was not the monastic atmosphere I had once imagined in the halls of [another compound called Chaco], but a busy, orderly setting, an urban trade center. Everyone had a place, some families having doorways that opened prominently onto plazas, others living in smoky, poorly lit rooms deep in the pueblo’s interior.

The nonfiction account of the Anasazi people and Childs’s descriptions of his expeditions was often woven together effectively and he presented a convincing case that the land he was exploring needed to be walked or hiked to ever understand the Anasazi people.

Childs’s tone was often dense and he imbued even the smallest event with meaning. However, he created a generally compelling and informative work.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Orion Magazine
Ms. M’s Bookshelf
Light+Space+Structure blog