Animal Farm by George Orwell

I’m going to assume you have read this book.

Probably in high school.

Even if your English teacher was not the best teacher you ever had, you probably got most of what there is to get in Animal Farm.  It’s a straightforward book;  Mr. Orwell makes sure that everyone understands  his point.  While the communist revolution may have started well, may have even brought peace, prosperity and equality for a while, Stalin soon seized power and destroyed all that was good about it.

I’m a firm believer that Mr. Orwell’s best work can be found in his non-fiction; there’s nothing in Animal Farm to compare with Homage to Catalonia or essays like “Shooting an Elephant”, but the story is still a good one, the critique of Stalinism is still a damning indictment and, unfortunately, Animal Farm still has a message relevant to our time. Even for those of us who never lived under Stalin.

Consider three examples:

1.  In Animal Farm there is a pig named Squealer who has, as his sole function, the job of convincing all the other animals that what their leader, Napoleon, the evil pig who represents Stalin, is doing is the right thing to do.  Squealer must face the animals and lie to them, cajole them, convince them that what they saw with their own eyes or lived through themselves, is not what really happened.  Squealer is Napoleon’s spin-meister, the media pig who corrects the story and tells everyone what “really” is true.  This keeps the animals from questioning their society, keeps them working from day to day without raising objection to how they are treated by those above them.  Squealer is the agent who convinces everyone not to question the status quo.  He must make everyone believe that the pigs should eat better food while working much less than they do.

2.  The dedicated, devoted worker Boxer, a draft horse, gives his all for the cause.  Whenever anything goes wrong, Boxer takes it upon himself to work harder, to get up earlier than before, work later, do more than his fare share, all he is capable of doing, to make sure that the job gets done and done as well as it can be.  Boxer never complains about the effort he puts into his work, never holds anyone else’s lack of effort against them, never questions those in charge.  He has faith that his work will be rewarded one day with retirement to the pasture set aside for him and for others where he can peacefully live out his old age.   Instead, when he has worked himself so hard he can no longer do much of anything, he finds the retirement pasture  has been given over to growing wheat for the production of beer drunk only by the pigs in charge and he is sold to a glue factory.

3.  By the novel’s end a few pigs are  living the high life while the rest of the animals gain nothing from their labor.  They are told that they are better off than they were before under the oppressive farmer, and many of them still believe it, but the readers know this is not so.  The pigs are better off, surely, but the rest of the animals suffer to make this possible.

Sound familiar?

Darn that George Orwell.

 

 

I first ran this review on my old blog back in September of 2011.  Lately, there has been an uptick in sales of Orwell’s 1984 which I’m sure you’ve heard about.  I think this is a mistake.  I think Animal Farm is really the book we should be reading now, if we should be reading Orwell.  Reading my review above, I’ve come to conclude that we’re not dealing with another Big Brother but with a Napoleon, a greedy, egocentric pig who will sell us all out to make himself and those like him even fatter than they already are. 

Okay, that’s a little cynical, and I do try to avoid politics here, but that’s what I think.

Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

It’s long been my belief that you should never revisit the things that most impressed you when you were young.  My number one object lesson for this belief is the 1972  science fiction movie Silent Running starring Bruce Dern.  (I’ve posted the trailer for it below.) I was nine-years-old when I saw it.  The special effects, the ecological message, the robots, the final shot of one robot caring for the plants with a battered watering can, it all blew my mind.  I never saw it again, but I have always remembered it.

In college, late one night when the dorm conversation turned to classic made-for-television movies the way it often did, I brought up Silent Running, the movie with that guy alone in space who teaches the robots to play poker, you know, the one with the forests inside the domes…..  Turns out I was far from the only nine-year-old to fall in love with Silent Running in 1972.

I warned the group, don’t watch it again.  You know it’s going to look cheesy compared to Blade Runner and Star Wars and you’re just going to end up being embarrassed to admit you ever liked it.  Keep the memory alive. Don’t ever watch it again.

A few years later I heard from one of my college friends.  She had watched the movie.  I was right.

In spite of this long held belief, when Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man came up on Kindle’s daily deal for 99 cents, I bought it.

The stories in The Illustrated Man are not as good as I remembered.  While some of them have stayed with me since I first read the collection, probably 35 years ago, I can’ argue that many of them are particularly good.  Kaleidoscope about a group of astronauts spinning off into space each in a different direction after the explosion of their rocket; The Rocket Man about a poor father who buys an old rocket to stage a fake trip into space for his children’s amusement; The Exiles about the ghosts of dead authors like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain who live on Mars with the spirits of all the characters they created hiding from a now bookless earth, all moved me profoundly the first time I read the book much in the same way Silent Running did.

This time around, I have to admit that while I still admire the ideas behind Ray Bradbury’s short stories, the only one in The Illustrated Man that I can really defend as being a very good short story is The Vedlt about two children who have become far too attached to their high tech television room.

All of Ray Bradbury’s work has a slightly dated feel to it now, but it always felt a little bit dated, didn’t it?  He spent his career in a stage of futuristic nostalgia, writing stories about people in the future who long for a world they left behind somewhere in their collective past.  One of the two episodes for The Twilight Zone Ray Bradbury wrote, I Sing the Body Electric is about a robot manufacturer who creates android grandmothers to provide comfort and care for children who have lost their own mother.  Technology so advanced it still remains yet to come used to create a grandmother figure from so far back in the past even people in the 1960’s only knew it as fictional.

The stories in The Illustrated Man are a lot like that.

It seems fitting to have read The Illustrated Man on a Kindle.

Here’s the trailer for Silent Running.  I swear to you that back in 1972, this movie was amazing.

 

I first ran this review back in 2013 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I’m still a fan, though I admit reading this does make he hesitate before going back to read more by Ray Bradbury. 

The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford

I don’t usually like  this type of book, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself while reading The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy.  When I do, I prefer quest stories, the kind of thing with lots of action.  Characters and setting are also very important, but I find that most fantasy fiction consists of multiple story-lines spent plotting against each other with far more debate and discussion than sword and sorcery.  I loved The Hobbit but found The Lord of the Rings far too talky; I love books by Peter S. Beagle but couldn’t make it through George R. Martin.

So I ought to have hated The Dragon Waiting, but I didn’t.  It’s got multiple story-lines, more debate and discussion than sword and sorcery, even quite a bit of delivering news about events that happened off-stage. But it all worked for me.

I think it’s because The Dragon Waiting turns a typical fantasy trope on it’s head.  I find that most fantasy novels build a world and then inserts European Medieval social structures into it.  Some even bring along a good portion of Medieval European history to act as the basic plot line.  This works for many readers, but I’d rather just read history.  History is really fun.

John M. Ford flips this model.  He takes the world of European Medieval society and adds fantastic elements to it.  I hope that works as an explanation because it’s the best way I can describe why The Dragon Waiting felt so different from other fantasy epics I’ve tried, and largely failed, to read.

So picture England at the time of Richard III.  While the English are embroiled in the War of the Roses, the Byzantine Empire, which didn’t fall in the 15th century, is on the move.  Meanwhile, instead of plague, a form of vampirism is spreading through Europe, even the two princes in the tower have fallen victim to it.

While The Dragon Waiting features many characters from history, the bulk of the story focuses on four companions who travel across Europe from Medici ruled Florence to London working for various politically important people and trying to prevent Byzantium from conquering the continent.

It was really fun.  I wish there was a sequel.  Not a series of ten books, that’s too  many, just a sequel.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2013. I’ve been slowly migrating all of my old reviews over to this “new” blog.  It’s taking years.

Tournament of Short Stories: Robert E. Howard vs. Cordwainer Smith

Strike one up for the barbarian.

So often, you just need the right story at the right time.

I first read Cordwainer Smith last year and loved him. He’s excellent.   However, the two I read for this round just didn’t do the trick.

For some reason, Conan the Barbarian, did.

The two by Robert E. Howard that I read for this round, “The God in the Bowl” (1952), and “Rogues in the House” (1934), follow the exact same formula though they were written nearly 20  years apart.  A crime has been committed, a murder probably.  Conan the Barbarian is on the scene, probably hired to protect someone or to commit a different crime, most likely a robbery.  There is an investigation led by a powerful man, often a man with magical powers.  Turns out the culprit is a supernatural being hiding in the room or the next room all along, sometimes behind a curtain.  Conan kills it, then kills the bad people in the room, the ones worse than him at least, and maybe a few guards who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sometimes Conan takes a treasure and leaves town, sometimes he just leaves.

It’s not art; it’s a good time.  

I enjoyed both stories more than I thought I would, once again.  I’ve read six in this volume so far.  While they have not always advanced to the next round, they have always entertained.

So, Robert E. Howard moves ahead in my tournament of short stories.  I look forward to seeing just who, or what, Conan goes up against next.

 

Tournament of Short Stories SF/F Edition: Ted Chiang vs. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. VII

I’ve devoted this round of my tournament of short stories to science fiction and fantasy tales.  I’ve just enough anthologies to make it interesting, though I’m going to stretch the genre to include magical realism and people who included some SF/F in their books.

It may be a challenge, but it should be fun.

Science fiction and fantasy, even at their darkest, are fun.

For this round I ran the first two stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume VII (2012)  which are The Contrary Gardner” by Christopher Lowe and “The Woman who Fooled Death Five Times”  by Eleanor Arnason against the first two in Ted Chiang’s anthology Arrival, which was originally called Stories of Your Life and Others

While I liked both of the stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year, especially Ms Arnason’s story, the round goes to Ted Chiang.

The first of Mr. Chiang’s stories, “The Tower of Babylon,” follows a new worker assigned to the upper portion of a giant construction project, a Tower of Babel.  I enjoyed the story for the remarkable world building it entailed.  Just how would such a project, a tower aiming to reach heaven, work.  The logistical support needed, how materials and messages would move upwards, all sorts of details are “realistically” imagined in Mr. Chiang’s tale.  When the workers finally do break through and reach heaven, what they find there both surprised me and came as something I should have guessed all along.

The second Ted Chiang story “Understand” may not be his own take on the Daniel Keyes  “Flowers for Algernon”  but it’s hard to read it without thinking this.  The story concerns the discovery of a compound that increases human intelligence by replacing the parts of the brain destroyed due to severe injury.  One man is given a dose which makes him so intelligent that he becomes a national security threat.  Before the scientists can stop him, he gives him self several more doses making him into a kind of super brain, capable of figuring out how to control people by reading their behavior to discover what their triggers are.  While I expected him to meet his end like the hero of Mr. Keye’s novel does once the treatment begins to wear off, instead he meets another patient who is even smarter than he is.

I’ve read a lot about Ted Chiang lately but never read him before. He really is as good as they say he is.

So, Ted Chiang advances to the next round.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

file_000-7I really liked this book.

Nnedi Okorafor’s fantasy epic Who Fears Death is something of a cross between Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler if both had grown up in Africa.

The story follows Onyesonwu, a young woman living in what must be a post-civilization North Africa.  Her culture is clearly based on Africa and the setting is a vast desert like the Sahara, but there are continual mentions of advanced technology familiar to the 21st century.  Though everyone seems much more interested in using magic than technology.  There are no other races in the book, just Africans.

Something has happened to bring this situation about. Or we may be in an alternative North Africa.  The cultures in Ms. Okorafor’s book are very African, at least as far as I can tell.  There is much about female circumcision and its aftermath, much about deadly struggles between tribes like what happened with the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda many years ago.  There are probably many more references to current isses someone more versed in Africa than I am would find.  The questions of exactly where and when we are or how the world came to be like this are never really answered, but that doesn’t matter as far as the story is concerned.

The magic in the book reminded me much more of African novelists like Ben Okri and Ngugi wa Thiong’o than it did J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.  But there is enough magic in Who Fears Death to make this a work of fantasy, not of magical realism.

So….Ursula K. LeQuin?….Octavia Butler?

There really are not that many plots in general, in particular in fantasy. Who Fears Death uses the basic plot of A Wizard of Earthsea.  The narrator and main character Onyesonwu realizes at a young age that she has magical powers, much like the Ged in Earthsea.  She learns some on her own, but soon realizes she needs a more qualified and more powerful teachers.  What really makes this novel like A Wizard of Earthsea for me is when Onyesonwu meets her fate through a magical vision and has to travel across her world to face a supreme opponent as a result.  Ged, in Earthsea, unleashes a dark magical force through his own fault which he must leave home in order to defeat.  Onyesonwu meets her own fate through an initiation practice which forces her to see her own death to prove she is a worthy student but her situation is also, in part, the result of her own wilfullness.

Onyesonwu sees herself buried up to her neck in a town square where she is stoned to death.  To prevent this end, or to fulfill it, she must travel across the desert to the town ruled by her biological father who is also her ultimate enemy.  This takes us into Octavia Butler territory.

Not the territory of Kindred but the territory of her more mythic, godlike stories.  Books like Wildseed and Adulthood Rites.  Dark books about women who faced incredible odds not just in the forces against them but in the societies that suppressed them.

Issues of sexual politics, of female sexuality and the power imbalance between men and women are common features in Octavia Butler’s stories.  Who Fears Death deals with all of these as openly, as frankly and as forcefully as Ms. Butler.  This begins with Onyesonwu’s conception because Onyesonwu is a child of rape.  Her mother’s town was invaded by a rival tribe known to force themselves onto the women they capture for the purpose of fathering children who will be outcast.  Onyesonwu is outcast, but this status as a child of two cultures is also what gives her her power.  What if the thing that gives your life purpose is also the result of a terrible wrong committed on your own mother?

While Who Fears Death treads into uncomfortable territory, I found it exciting reading.  I enjoyed characters, those who went along with Onyesonwu on her journey across the desert and those she met along the way.  I like fantasy that travels, something with a sense of real adventure, books like A Wizard of Earthsea.  Who Fears Death delivered the goods as far as I’m concerned.

It’s not a book for children, not young children anyway, but adults who still enjoy a fantastical tale will find Who Fears Death has much to offer.