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 Ramble and Two Books I Didn’t Like. Sorry.

Visited the local Friends of the Library book sale yesterday, in the rain, where C.J. and I managed to spend much more than we intended.  He got several art books and a couple of books full of house plans while I nearly completed my Jane Austen collection. Can you name the book I still have to find.

I’ve decided it’s a good time to re-read all of Jane Austen’s six novels in order.  So, I’m looking for good second-hand copies of each.  I’d like to have all in the newish Vintage Classics paperback editions.  The top middle book is a Vintage Classics edition. I like them for the cover art.

Apparently, true Janeites re-read all six novels every year or so I read somewhere.  I’m not that big a fan, but I am a big fan.  Once I find Mansfield Park I’ll be ready to begin.

I had two near DNF’s this week, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Repetition  and Ray  by Barry Hannah.  While I am a fan of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Repetition did not hit the spot for me.  All of his work, the two other novels I’ve read so far at least, is experimental in ways I find interesting once I figure out just what is going on.  Repetition concerns an agent sent on a mission to Germany during the Cold War, I think.  The book opens with him on the train trying to get through to the other side when he enters a compartment to find himself already sitting there. The man, who looks just like him except he is not wearing a fake mustache, appears to be a better version of himself.  Also an agent on a mission, this doppelgänger is one step ahead of the novel’s hero so much so that at times they appear to switch places in the narrative. I’m not sure. I was confused.

I was confused with the other two Robbe-Grillet novels I read, but I enjoyed trying to figure things out. Confusion is a part of reading as far as I am concerned.  But this time,  because I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, I began to lose patience with the whole thing. Additionally, while the other Robbe-Grillet novels I read struck me as inventive and original, this one seemed like a re-tread of ideas Paul Auster has already done in his New York trilogy.

The other book I didn’t really like was Ray by Barry Hannah. Ray was on one of the Brilliant Novels You Can Read in a Day lists that I found a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a little TBR list of them on one of the tabs at the top of this blog.  The other one’s I’ve read so far have been knock outs so I had high hopes.

Ray  is a long rant about the title character’s life, his loves and the people he knows.  A former pilot who flew fighter planes in Vietnam, Ray is a southerner, through and through.  Which, I’ll be honest, was part of the problem for me. I know there are people, not just in the south, who use racist language freely.  I know depicting this is an honest way to depict them. I understand the argument that “realistic” language gives fiction authenticity.  I know, I know, I know.

But I just don’t have patience for it anymore.  If I never read another book with racist, homophobic or sexist language in it as long as I live, I’m okay with that.

So parts of Ray were very tough going.

It’s supposed to be funny, the way Flannery O’Connor is funny.  I like Flannery O’Connor a lot. While I do find her funny, she’s not laugh-out-loud funny for me the way Eudora Welty is.  All the little blurbs on the back mention how funny Barry Hannah is, how he’s the best southern writer since Flannery O’Connor, etc., etc. None of them mention Eudora Welty whom I think is better than Flannery O’Connor.

But I just didn’t see it.

I’m going to keep both books, though, just in case.  Maybe a future re-reading will reveal things I missed the first time around.  While I didn’t really like either one, I do recognize both are well-written books.

Maybe next time….

Meanwhile, I’m still making my way through Kevin Starr’s Eight volume history of California. I’m nearing the end of the first book Americans and the California Dream which covers 1850 to 1915.  I’ve mentioned before how C.J. and I plan on retiring to the Gold Country where we’ll give  walking tours for the local historical society of whatever town we end up in.  So we’re both reading up on California history.  We’re big fans of the stuff.

And I’m reading an import from China called The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei.  The cover promised a modern noir tale covering 50 years of Hong Kong history, but so far it’s a very old-fashioned story. The opening section, set in modern-day Hong Kong, featured what is usually the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel.  All of the suspects were gathered in a single room while the chief detective reviewed the case hoping one of the suspects would crack and reveal too much.  I completely enjoyed it.  It was a fresh take on this old trope to avoid all the business about gathering clues for three-fourths of the book. Why not just skip to final chapters where all the good stuff is.  That a surprise murderer was revealed came as no surprise really. That he turned out not to be the real killer did.  That he turned out to be someone else’s killer did, too.

Each part that follows is set back in time about ten years or so, with the same set of detectives, just in their younger days.

It looks promising.

 

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

91cr7sy43slSometimes it’s very hard to pin down why you love a book.

Denis Johnson’s very short novella, I found it on a list of brilliant books you can read in a day, tells the story of an abbreviated life.  Robert Grainier is a day laborer in the American West circa 1910.  He never amounts to much.  There isn’t much to tell about his life.  He works very hard, he marries a woman he loves and has a daughter only to lose both in a wildfire.  Afterwards, he retreats into a smaller and smaller world becoming, by the end of his life, the hermit in the woods.

Through his life he is haunted. He is haunted by the memory of the Chinese man whose near murder he participated in, though he was just passing by at the time.  Why he so willingly joined in with the mob of men who were attempting to throw the Chinese laborer off of a bridge and what became of the young man who managed to escape with his life become obsessions that bother Grainier even during the short time he is a happily married father.

After the fire destroys his life, Grainer returns to the site of his cabin searching for the remains of his family.  Though the fire destroyed the area completely, he decides to stay on his small piece of land where he builds a shelter though never anything as nice as the cabin he lost.  A stray dog appears and keeps him company until another dog takes over a few years later but he has very little human company.

It’s a very simple story, really.  The focus is entirely on the character of Robert Grainier who is not a complex man.  While he is haunted by memories of his past, he basically lives by living without much time for self-reflection.

Should this make for a moving read?  Is there enough there to make the reader feel for Robert Grainer? I think the honest answer to both questions is no, but I was moved, I felt for Robert Grainer.

Just past the halfway mark, Grainer goes to a county fair where he takes a ride in an early bi-plane.  Almost no one else at the fair has the nerve to go for a ride in this contraption, but Grainer takes it in stride, with little thought for any dangers involved.  The plane climbs higher than Grainer has ever been before then begins

 to plummet like a hawk, steeper and steeper, its engine almost silent, and Grainier’s organs pushed back against his spine. He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their cabin on a summer’s night, then another cabin he’d never remembered before, the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered.

This plane ride is the most momentous thing that has happened to Grainer in many years and the most momentous thing that will happen to him in the years he has left.  The memories it summons for him are simple moments, still moments recalled through stupendous movement: sitting quietly sharing a soda with his small family; hearing his mother’s voice comforting him as she holds him in her arms.

I think that sums up why I loved this little book. Most people would have expected that first plane ride to be the big event, but it was ultimately that soda on a hot evening that haunted Robert Grainier’s memories.

So, I’m looking forward to the next book on my list of brilliant books you can read in a day and I’m going to be looking for more by Denis Johnson.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

High Dive by Jonathan Lee

This marks the end of my Tournament of Books 2017 reading.

It’s been fun. Really. I read a good-sized handful of books from the short list, enjoyed most of them, admired a few, didn’t finish one. I’ve even come away with a few titles sure to make my personal short list of favorite reads for this year.

But I’m moving on to other titles now.  There’s a big, too big to discuss, pile on my nightstand that I’d like to get around to.

I did not read The Mothers by Brit Bennet so I cannot comment on whether or not the best book won this round, but it does seem like I tend to pick slightly more winners than losers. Though even the “losers” I read were darn good. Actually, the losers include my favorite of the bunch The Vegetarian.

So, I should say something about Jonathan Lee’s novel High Dive. 

While the book works more or less as a thriller, I didn’t feel a whole lot of suspense myself, what works best about the book is the relationship between middle-aged hotelier and former high dive champion Moose and his daughter Freya an acerbic teenager on the cusp of adulthood.  In what I found to be a much less interesting subplot an IRA fighter, does one still call them terrorists, is planning on bombing the hotel when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and the rest of her party gather there for a conference.

Just past the halfway mark there is a brief scene between Moose and his sometimes love interest wherein the author explains just what he is up to in High Dive. It’s a piece of foreshadowing that I didn’t think I was supposed to spot, except in retrospect.  There should have been a “I should have seen it coming” moment but my moment was “Oh, I see what’s gong to happen” which is problematic with a thriller.

With no suspense for my reading, High Dive was an interesting and enjoyable character study of Moose and Freya. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, came to like them both, wanted them to find what they were looking for in life. And I was very sorry to see it all end the way it did.

Which is probably the point the author wanted to make when he gave away the ending anyway.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Before she was executed, Anne Boleyn’s head was shaved.  Afterwards, her hair was given to the executioner as part of the payment for his work.  He then sold it, at a considerable sum for the time, to a maker of tennis balls, which were often filled with human hair in that century.  Anne Boleyn’s hair was valued material for tennis balls because it was female, reddish in color and from someone believed to be a witch.  Four tennis balls were made from her hair.  One was used in a famed match between Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Another, through the usual suspicious provenance, ended up at  the New York Public Library.

Since C.J. and I are cat-sitting in Brooklyn this summer, I, of course, thought we should go see this tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.   So I contacted the New York Public Library to ask if the tennis ball was on display.  The librarian I spoke with, Nick, said he had never heard of this he would have heard of if they had a tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, but he gave me the number of a department that would probably know more about it.

So I did some on-line research only to discover, in a few minutes, that Alvaro Enrigue made the whole thing up.  There are no tennis balls made from Anne Boleyns hair.  Caravaggio and de Quevedo never played tennis against each other.  The entire book is fiction, historical fiction.

But that I believed it all, or was so ready to believe it all, says something, maybe something about Mr. Enrigue’s book or maybe something about me.

Though I can say what happens in Sudden Death, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, it’s hard to say what the book is about.  Even the narrator admits, just about two-thirds of the way through the novel, that he doesn’t know.  There is the tennis match which is interspersed throughout the novel. Is it a metaphor for something larger? There is a plot involving Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico and the story of how this will bring a piece of feather work to the attention of Italian artists, changing forever they way they use paint.  And some treacherous popes, some surviving Aztec craftsmen, Cortez’s native wife who ends up living a life of luxury in Spain.

It’s a wonderful ride, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I recommend.  One that I’m keeping around to read again someday.

It was also the first winner in the Tournament of Books.  Sudden Death beat out both The Throwback Special which I loved and The Sport of Kings which I have not read yet, though I do own a copy.  I didn’t think Sudden Death would win because it’s such a difficult book to pin down.  What’s really going on is not what’s really going on in Sudden Death.  The plot, as much fun as it was, may just be a cover for a discussion of writing or art or the nature of narrative or the unreliability of story or something someone more clever than I will figure out.  It’s also very experimental in nature they  Roberto Bolano’s work so often is.  After finishing the book, I looked at the back cover to find that Mr. Enrigue is Mexican, not Spanish as I had assumed and that his work has been compared to Roberto Bolano.  Should have known, I thought.

So while I was surprised to see it win the pre-tournament play-in round, I was still pleased.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s see how it does against Francine Prose’s Master Monkey.

Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke

It took me almost three months to read this book.

The little page counter/timer on my Kindle claimed that I should have been able to read the entire book in just about three hours, but even when using the audio read-a-loud feature, I never made it more than a few pages at a time without falling asleep.

Okay, I was reading in bed, sometimes lying on the sofa in the late afternoon.

But still.

It’s easy to see why Arthur C. Clarke is considered a visionary, one of the standards to whom subsequent science fiction authors have been compared to ever since.  From what I know, Earthlight is not considered one of Arthur C. Clarke’s best novels, but it’s still a very forward thinking book.  At least it is technologically.  Mr. Clarke imagines a realistic future featuring a colonized solar system.  Humans have moved on from the earth to large settlements on the moon and Mars along with several other smaller colonies on various moons throughout the solar system.

Things have reached a point where the colonies have begun to rebel against their home planet much like American colonies rebelled against England.

It’s all very well thought out, very feasible.  Earthlight is what’s known as hard science fiction, based on real science, focused on technology and what future technology might include.  In spite of my sleepy reaction to the book, Mr. Clarke is good with plot and with characterization.  I also really liked the central image of the book, that of the earth in various phases sitting in the moon’s sky.  What it would be like to live your entire life with the blue earth as the thing you see in the sky at night, is an interesting question.

What I have a problem with is that in Mr. Clarke’s future not a single woman is capable of working on the moon.  Not only women, but every man who’s neither white nor heterosexual.  What is that about?

I understand that Mr. Clarke wrote Earthlight in 1955 but seriously.  You can imagine life on the moon but not a woman capable of working in the observatory there.  Even if women can’t work on the moon, if there’s a colony there, surely some of the men will be married with children.  They’re all straight, right.

I’m a little tired of granting people leeway just because they come from a time and culture other than our own.  If someone who writes about the future is to be considered visionary, it’s not too much to expect that their vision include social progress along with technical progress.  And if you want to give an author credit for creating a world, you have to prove the existence of at least one fully realized female character in their work.  Yes, I’m talking about Mr. Tolkien.  The most emotionally complex female character he ever created was a giant spider.

That’s right.  I said it.

End of rant.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., a few years back, but I still stand by my little rant. Since I’ve been focused on science fiction this past week or so, it’s been clear that the above rant is right on.