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

Dark Lover

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider9780374282394

publication date: 2003
pages: 423
ISBN: 0-374-28239-0

I picked this book up as I was wandering through the library. The title caught my eye because it was also the name of the first book of a romance series I sometimes read called The Black Dagger Brotherhood. When I started the book, I knew almost nothing about Rudolph Valentino and the era of silent movies.

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian man born in 1895. He moved to New York City when he was 18, where he became a dancer and an actor in bit parts. His first big break was in 1921 as the lead in the successful silent movie The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. That role led to many more parts and to him being a new kind of sex symbol: the dark and mysterious, maybe even a little evil, lover. He had a short and powerful career and died at the age of 31 of stomach ulcers.

Dark Lover was obviously well-researched. Leider described Valentino’s life in great detail and included several passages about the biographies of the people closest to him, including his immediate family and his wives and friends. Leider also uncovered facts about Valentino’s life that had been forgotten or had been wrongly presented in other accounts of Valentino.

Although Leider’s writing did not sparkle with wit or originality, she did present a fun tone throughout the book, and an undeniable passion for the subject. Here was her description of the negative implication of Valentino dancing for money when he first arrived in New York:

American opinion found nothing strenuous in dancing done by men, whether in ballets or ballrooms. [Russian male dancer] Nijinsky, who appeared in New York in 1916 with the Ballets Russes, was slammed in the press for being effete. To move with graceful insinuation, wear citified evening clothes, show off, and make a woman sigh as you swept her across the floor – sorry, it just wouldn’t do, especially if the woman was picking up the tab. The [dancer’s] slicked-back hair became a symbol of what made him suspect. Instead of being rugged and leathery like a 100 percent American, his oiled hair and manner made him “smooth” and slithery, like the fabled snake in the grass.

The book also contained three different sets of photographs. Leider found some wonderful pictures of Valentino, including a photo of a shirtless Valentino wearing skintight goatskin pants and playing a flute.

For me, the book was about one hundred pages too long. Leider included a lot of detail throughout the book, from her descriptions of Valentino’s clothes and purchases to the summaries of his movies. Someone with more than a passing interest in Valentino’s life presumably would have found the content more engaging. To me, the book seemed repetitive at times and would drag on. Leider never elevated Valentino’s story to be more than just a recounting of facts.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Guardian
London Review Of Books
Curled Up With a Good Book

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt

publication date: 2006
pages (including back matter): 319
ISBN: 0-393-05236-2

The Man Who Knew Too Much refers to Alan Turing, a gay Englishman who broke the Nazi’s code in WWII, basically invented the computer, and killed himself while on a forced estrogen treatment given to him by his government to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Embarrassingly, I had not heard of him before I heard of this book.

Turing’s story was incredibly compelling. He was a math and mechanical genius who used his intellect to create the foundation for computers, including a proto-computer that cracked the code of the Nazi coding device, Enigma. Further, his death was avoidable and tragic. However, Turing’s story as told by David Leavitt was sometimes uninteresting and dry.

Leavitt spent a good deal of time explaining the math involved in Turing’s discoveries. There were several passages that included equations, tables, and strings of numbers. I enjoy reading about math so, generally, I didn’t find these passages dull. A few times, however, I didn’t think Leavitt understood what he was explaining (Leavitt is a creative writing professor), which made his explanations muddled, tedious, and hard for me to grasp.

Further, Leavitt did not use nearly as much detail describing Turing’s personal life or experiences as he did describing the math involved. Leavitt instead often spoke in generalities or hypotheticals. For example, Leavitt repeatedly noted Turing was lonely but he provided no further explanation, such as how Leavitt knew he was lonely, what caused his specific loneliness, how he coped with it, or anything of the sort. I’m not sure why Leavitt was so withholding, because the bits of Turing’s life that he did introduce were illuminating. Especially fascinating was a short story Turing wrote about a scientist named Alec Pryce who sexually propositions Ron, a young man.

Leavitt’s discussion of Turing’s death was woefully sparse. With only five pages left in the book, Leavitt wrote, “Mrs. Clayton, his housekeeper, found Alan Turing’s dead body in his bed on the morning of June 8, 1954. Nearby was an apple out of which several bites had been taken.” Leavitt then spent several paragraphs discussing letters written by Turing’s mother after his death. On the last few pages, Leavitt finally reflects on Turing’s suicide, although in only a few paragraphs. Leavitt’s cursory discussion left me wondering what the whole point was. Leavitt clearly was enthralled by Turing’s life and death, but he provided no explanation or reflection as to why.

However, The Man Who Knew Too Much was an enjoyable book that delved into a fascinating life and regrettable death. The book has something to offer to varied types of people, including those interested in math, history, or queer studies.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

Kirkus Reviews
The Independent
Entertainment Weekly