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

A Year In the Merde

9781582345918A Year In the Merde by Stephen Clarke

publication date: 2004
pages: 276
ISBN: 978-1-58234-591-8

This ostensibly fictional novel really wanted its readers to accept the realism and accuracy of its pages. The blurb on the back described the book as a “hilarious, almost-true tale.” The quote at the front, taken from a preface to another book, extolled: “Its pages form the record of events that really happened.”

In the book, the author – a British man living and working in Paris, France – introduced us to the character Paul West – a British man living and working in Paris, France. Paul West was a British businessman hired as a consultant by a French company to help open a string of British tea shops in France. Both West and the author explained French daily life in a superior and joke-filled style.

The topics satirized most often were: labor strikes, the Parisian shrug, French women’s sexuality, and hypocritical isolationism. The most effective mockery surrounded anti-war liberals, who seemed to be against war only insofar as it was trendy and simple. For example, when West met with his friend to discuss West’s lack of sex life, the two companions first:

dispensed with the war (“It’s always civilians who suffer,” “Why do so many people swallow the line that politicians feed them?” and so on) and then got down to the meat of the matter.

There were a few other funny passages, such as this description of Parisian apartment-dwelling:

I was also sick of my neighbors, as most Parisians are . . . At 7:00 a.m. alarm goes off, boom, Madame gets out of bed, puts on her deep-sea divers’ boots, and stomps across my ceiling to megaphone the kids awake. The kids drop bags of cannonballs onto the floor, then, apparently dragging several sledgehammers each, stampede into the kitchen . . . meanwhile the toilet is flushed, on average, fifty times per drop of urine expelled.

The author was also very good at melding the French and the English languages. There were many passages where the book played with French and English homonyms and idioms.

However, most of the book fell flat. Here was his simplistic and jokey description of his boss’s residence:

It overlooked the Bois de Boulogne, the immense wooded park where toffs go riding and Brazilians earn the cash for their sex-change operations. About as exclusive a Paris address as you can get.

A lot of the jokes and observations foundered, but also the plot was poorly explained and confusing. Because almost everything in the book was a joke, I wasn’t sure what was actually happening or what was an exaggeration. For example, at one point, West is awakened by armed gunman at his door. But were these man “armed” in the same way that the Parisian neighbors mentioned above carted sledgehammers around with them? Or were they actually toting guns? It turned out they literally were wielding rifles, but by the time I figured that out, the scene had lost all of its dramatic tension.

I didn’t find A Year In the Merde entertaining, but I’ve not been to France. Maybe those more familiar with the subject would find the book more pleasurable.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Uncustomary Book Review
The Bookbag
Pulse

Taduno’s Song

Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun9781101871454

publication date: 2016
pages: 234
ISBN: 9781101871454

In this slim novel, Odafe Atogun presented a surreal Nigeria. One in which political prisoners send letters without anything leaving their jail cell, guitars have the power to condemn someone to death, and the dictatorial Nigerian president declares all forms of music to be illegal. Taduno’s Song followed singer-in-exile Taduno as he attempted to rescue his girlfriend from prison in Lagos, Nigeria. Taduno’s main weapon was his music. He used it to convince, to calm, and to protest. His crusade was hampered, however, by the fact that no one, including his family and friends, remembered who he was once he returned from exile.

The book used absurdist and magical realist themes and story lines. When Taduno was in exile, all the houses at the town he was exiled to were empty and open for him to use. When a music producer’s Afro was cut off he seemingly lost all his power. The entire story was an epic battle for Taduno’s music, which was used to accomplish almost anything. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to read these off-kilter plot points as important to the story or as symbols for something else.

Because the book included a lot of absurd or non-logical events, places, and characters, it was difficult for me to care about the plot. I often wondered, when does something move from “magical realism,” to “nonsensical?” If anyone might do anything at any time, because there were no rules, why would I care about these particular people? The characters were also often indistinguishable from each other. There was the evil President and the pure and good girlfriend of Taduno, but beyond that, the dialogue could have been spoken by anyone.

The book did explore compelling themes. A main theme was the capacity of the work-a-day person to forget atrocities that happened in the recent past or were currently happening. After Taduno was exiled for making music, the people of his country literally were unable to recall anything about him. Another theme was the ability of art to make a real difference in people’s lives, by fighting the government or creating unity among a people.

Atogun also had flashes of brilliance regarding corruption and power. For example, this exchange, between Taduno and the President, after the President had him arrested for playing guitar in the street:

‘You believe my order was unjustified?’
‘Yes. It violates my right to make public music.’
‘You do not have rights. No one in this country has rights. This is not a civilian regime, this is a military regime, see?’ The President smiled triumphantly.
‘Well, I want my rights. Every citizen of this country wants their rights.’
The President shook his head in astonishment, unable to understand why anybody wanted rights under a military regime. He laughed in amusement.

Although Taduno’s Song had some interesting or effective elements, generally the nonexistent characters, wacky plot, and inconstant writing made the book dull to read.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Book Page
Read in Colour blog
Brittle Paper

Dead Until Dark

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris9780441019335

publication date: 2001
pages: 312
ISBN: 978-0-441-01933-5

Dead Until Dark was the first book of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which were the basis for the HBO show True Blood. I haven’t seen True Blood, so I don’t know how close the show reproduced the book. Dead Until Dark introduced Sookie Stackhouse, a dotty, Louisiana waitress who had a few secrets tucked away. First, she could read minds and second, she wanted to meet a vampire. Lucky for Sookie, the world created by Harris in Dead Until Dark conveniently included vampires – a subset of humans who had recently come out from the collective coffin a few years before we met Sookie at Merlotte’s bar.

The book was a mashup of genres: mystery, romance, fantasy, gothic, humor. Unfortunately, Harris didn’t represent any given genre very competently, although the combination did create a generally compelling story. It was a quick read, and I was intrigued enough, although I couldn’t quite pinpoint why.

The book was supposed to be quirky and funny. Sometimes that worked, like when Harris named the fictional local gas station the “Grabbit Kwik.” Often, it did not work, as in this description of a person whose mind Sookie was attempting to read:

I couldn’t hear his thoughts as clearly as I could other people’s. I’d had waves of impressions of how he was feeling, but not thoughts. More like wearing a mood ring than getting a fax.

The book was also supposed to be sexy. The sexiness, which was often odd and blunt, surprisingly worked for me. One of the first things that a vampire said to Sookie, after she surrounded her neck and arms with anti-vampire metal chains because she didn’t trust him not to bite her, was:

“But there’s a juicy artery in your groin,” he said after a pause to regroup, his voice as slithery as a snake on a slide.

Although reading Dead Until Dark was usually painless and uncomplicated, the book left much to be desired. The dialogue was pretty bad. There was this scene, where a character was trying to convince Sookie that she wouldn’t be able to read his mind:

[He said, “Would that be] relaxing to you?”
“Oh, yes.” I meant it from my heart.
“Can you hear me, Sookie?”
“I don’t want to try!” I said hastily. . . . “I’ll have to quit if I read your mind, Sam! I like you, I like it here.”

Also, the action was often confusing and underwhelming. And, although Harris peppered the book with some passages that reminded the reader that the book was set in the South, generally, Harris’s lack of effective description seemed like a waste of the rich Southern setting.

Although the book wasn’t terrible, it didn’t intrigue me enough to induce me to read the other books in the series or to watch the TV show.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Russ Allbery’s reviews
TechRepublic
Pretty Little Memoirs

Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia

Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia by Dougald JW O’Reilly9780759102798

publication date: 2007
pages: 235
ISBN: 978-0-7591-0278-1

I picked this book up because I was interested in the Pyu people of modern-day Myanmar. In Laura Bush’s memoir, which I reviewed, she discussed how the Pyu were a nonviolent people who created a good template for living. I had never heard of the Pyu and was intrigued by her description. I searched Wikipedia but didn’t find much information. Wanting to find out more about the Pyu, I found the only book at my local library that discussed the Pyu in any detail: Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia.

This book read like an expanded dissertation paper. It was dry and filled with quotes from other sources. The author didn’t attempt much interpretative writing or analysis. Also, the discussion was filled with words and terms that I wasn’t familiar with, which the author didn’t define and couldn’t be understood from the context. For example, these sentences, from a short discussion of the climate of the region:

At the higher elevations the increased rainfall changes the character of the forest, creating a canopy where little sunlight penetrates to ground level. Here the arboreal animals dominate the faunal spectrum.

Honestly, I kinda liked the phrase “the faunal spectrum” – it had a quirkiness; but it seemed flashy and redundant in this context.

Perhaps ironically, O’Reilly’s discussion of the Pyu did not mention any of the things mentioned by Bush: the pacifist culture that might herald a better way of life. So, either Bush – and others – was mistaken, or O’Reilly didn’t think that aspect of the Pyu was important enough to mention. Granted, O’Reilly didn’t discuss much of the culture or daily life of the Pyu people, whether nonviolent or not.

The book included some interesting tidbits. For example, Pyu people built their houses out of lychee and decorated their teeth with gold rosettes. However, the interesting parts were rarely discussed in any detail or even strung together to form a compelling picture of a people. As I was reading, I wished the whole thing was linked like an online article so I could learn more. For example, how did they use the lychee? Did they dry it? Is lychee a tree? I’d heard of it, but only as a fruit.

The book was well-researched and hopefully accurate. I would say I was simply not the audience. Academics looking to write a paper or thesis on this topic will perhaps cite this book, although I would not recommend it for reading, or even to gain a better understanding of these older cultures.

3/6: more good than bad

No other book reviews as such, although people have reviewed the book on Amazon and Good Reads:

Amazon
Good Reads

The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler9781250055637

publication date: 2015
pages: 339
ISBN: 978-1-250-05480-7

The Book of Speculation alternated between two linked story lines. The first, set in modern day, told the story of Simon Watson, a down-on-his-luck research librarian. Simon was desperately trying to hold on to the coastal house his family grew up in. With a diminishing career, a suicidal mother, a negligent father, and a roving sister who visited only once every few years, Simon felt the house was the only earthly thing he had to cling to. That changed when he was mysteriously sent an old ledger manuscript that contained his grandmother’s name and described an even older circus troupe, and when his sister arrived home, taking a break from her own life as a traveling circus performer.

The circus ledger detailed the second story line, set in the 1780s, about a traveling group of circus performers. That story focused on Amos, a mute man who became apprenticed to a fortune-teller and dreamed of finding and keeping love. One day, love fell into his lap in the form of Evangeline, a young woman with a gift for the water who was marketed by the circus as a mermaid.

The Book of Speculation was saturated with themes and motifs. There was water, of course, and drowning. Tarot cards and symbols. There were also themes of home, obsession, family, and the past as shackles. There were no subtle metaphors in Speculation: for example, Simon’s house, a relic of his failed family, literally hurt his leg and hampered his ability to walk away when one of the floorboards broke and swallowed him whole.

All these various plots, and themes, and characters, and fantastical elements – mermaids, circuses, tarot cards – fell flat for me. I didn’t care too much about Simon, which meant I didn’t care too much about the people in his constant dramas. Also, so many things seemed just a little bit off. I kept asking myself, “Does that make sense?” “Would someone do that?” “Do they really use lathes to angle doors?” (As far as I could tell – no.) For example, here was a passage from Simon’s narrative that rang false:

Alice cracks the door. Swollen eyes, a red nose, face bruised from crying.

Frank [had already] told her everything. I’m sorry and wish we’d never come. The worst is she’s a pretty crier and learning that is awful.

Learning she was a pretty crier was really the worst part about that situation? It wasn’t what Alice was crying about or what Frank told her or why you’d confront a grieving woman in the first place? It was that her face still looked pretty with tears on it?

Although the plots and characters often fizzled, Swyler imbued the book with vivid and effective imagery. As an example of writing that left an indelible image in my mind, here was a passage of Simon reading to his newly-returned sister, Enola:

[The story] is from the Bolokhovskis. She wants me to read Eglė. I do. Slowly, the way Mom used to, unraveling the story of the farmer’s daughter who would become Queen of the Serpents, and her children who were turned into trembling trees. All folktales have a price. Enola listens silently, pressing her forehead to my shoulder, letting me remember her.

The book was a steady read, so if any of the themes above intrigue you, you might want to pick this book up. However, I don’t have anything particular to recommend about it, either.

3/6: more good that bad

other reviews:

Bits & Books
npr
The Book Reporter

Drag Teen

Drag Teen by Jeffery Self9780545829939

publication date: 2016
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-545-82993-9

This YA book followed JT and his friends Heather and Seth from Florida to New York as they entered JT in a drag queen competition to boost his confidence and win a college scholarship. I’m glad this book exists, because there should be books about people pursuing drag for fun and for life. However, this particular book was not great.

The writing was very uneven. The narrator skipped from one topic to the next and any emotional changes were generally jarring and confusing. Also, the author assumed that just because he described something in a certain way, then that thing made sense. Here’s an example, when JT’s best friend was introduced:

Heather was just as much of a mess as me. Which is why our friendship worked so well. We were the kind of outcasts they don’t make teen movies about. Heather was funny, biting, sarcastic, and had a variety of beautiful features, but none of them really went together, and her weight problems were even worse than mine, which meant she turned to her big personality to distract the judgmental eyes of our peers.

That paragraph was all over the place. And, those two sound like exactly the folks people would make teen movies about. A gay teen and his funny, overweight best friend? I think 60% of teen movies post-She’s All That have that combo in there.

Generally, the humor did not work. However, there were a few parts that I thought were funny. This line was one of my favorites:

We all awkwardly chuckled along with her, the way people do in action movies when the bad guy makes a lame joke and laughs at it while holding a weapon.

I also liked how buoyant and passionate the writing was. The author really loved his topic and his characters. Although a lot of the characters in the book were just props for JT or plot pieces, JT’s boyfriend and best friend, Seth and Heather, were well-developed characters with their own interesting back stories and lives.

This book had a lot going for it, including good main characters and convincing settings and motivations, but unfortunately the plot and writing were flawed.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Twirling Book Princess
Portland Book Review
Edge Media Network