1984 by George Orwell
I feel like the last week or so has been spent chasing down book club selections (and I even missed the CBR Book Club, which was unfortunate, although the reviews have not exactly been glowing—so maybe it wasn’t a tragedy to have missed out?). This Sunday marks my regular book club meeting—A has chosen George Orwell’s 1984, which seemed terribly fitting, since the United States has a president who is being praised for not pooping on stage (that’s only the barest of exaggerations. I mean, the media is cooing over how he choked his broccoli down like a big boy, when he’s a GROWN ADULT) and is now actively engaging in acts of intellectual dishonesty, historical revisionism, and willful stupidity. I was eager to revisit the book for the first time in over 12 years, because it seemed terribly and sadly relevant.
Winston Smith is our protagonist, and he lives in a world populated by a faceless state and governed by the monolithic Big Brother. He engages in re-writing history to suit the particular narrative the state requires (are they at with Eurasia or Eastasia? That answer will constantly change throughout the book). In the middle is the confusing attention he receives from a young woman who is part of the Anti-Sex League and his growing restlessness with his lot in life. It all comes hurtling forward in a shocking and provocative conclusion.
Okay, people, real talk comes now. I read this book for the first in 2004 when I turned 20 years old (yes, I was born in 1984, so this book does have some sort of ideological meaning). It blew my mind, because, as my sister puts it, I was at the age of maximum impact to be affected by it. I really think she’s right. High school and early college is the best time you can read this book, because getting older and more well-read will make you question a lot of things. For example, Orwell’s narrative involves a fairly sex-negative and patriarchal subplot that turns a woman into a sexual object and degrades her somewhat for male enjoyment. Blech. Then, there’s the craft itself. Having read Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid’s Tale after 1984, I would say that Orwell’s prose absolutely pales in comparison to the others, particularly Bradbury’s and Atwood’s. I’d also say the plot can be fairly didactic and has an individualistic streak that would make Ayn Rand glow with ogreish pride. In fact, there were many points that reminded me of Rand’s Anthem, and I do not mean this as a compliment. I’m glad I re-read this book, but I think some of the luster of my youth has worn off, and I’m a bit past the point of being as deeply moved as when I was a kid. Time for a re-read of some other dystopian novels, I think.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
My library book club is reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder for March, which has been on my to-read list for several years now. I like reading young adult and middle-grade fiction, because I get a sense of what kids read and what they like. I’ll be interested to hear how my peers found Wonder, because I just finished it yesterday and am processing a whole bunch of thoughts.
Wonder is the story of August (or Auggie) Pullman, a ten-year-old boy with craniofacial anomalies, starting with a cleft palate and a whole other series of syndromes. Auggie has had several surgeries already, but his face is deformed and scary looking. He is about to enter mainstream school for the first time, and he is nervous about the journey. Told in the perspectives of several people, including his sister Via, her boyfriend Justin, his friends Jack and Savannah, and Via’s childhood friend Miranda, we get a sense of who Auggie is and what a wonder life can be.
Palacio handles Auggie’s disabilities with immense compassion, as she should. She further sends a strong message against bullying, which is important for kids and teens to read. I can really see why people loved this story and gave it rave reviews.
This is the part where I tell you to take my review with a grain of salt, because I just did not love this book (let the record show that I also don’t go gaga for John Green, Rainbow Rowell, or Hamilton). I get that Auggie is the protagonist, and therefore the focus of the book. But it felt at times as if Palacio had Mary Sued him, that he had no real faults and no real character growth except endurance and riding out a wave of bullying. The story also had a Very Special aspect to it, which seemed like Palacio just tried Too Hard to Make Fetch Happen. And at times, the interactions between ten-year-old kids just felt overwritten and overplotted. Finally, the ending was kind of annoying and unrealistic to me. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that it was, while cathartic and affirming, also unrealistic and artificial. There are some deeply genuine moments that made the story moving, but those often got pushed aside for an overall arc of Very Special Story. I tend to like something a bit more organic. Your own mileage may vary.
I’m always on the lookout for new talent and newly published books. My friend B had posted a picture of her reading Emily Fridlund’s debute novel History of Wolves, which I found intriguing. I decided to place a library hold and see what I thought of the book.
Linda is our story’s protagonist, and she is determined to tell us about her life, albeit in a messy and unorganized fashion. We find out that she was part of a cultish religion, which abandoned her family, who decided to stay in rural Minnesota. The majority of the action takes place while she is in middle school when her teacher is accused of possessing child pornography. One of her friends comes forward with assault allegations. At the same time, a family moves across the lake, and Linda is swept up into their unusual life before she realizes that not everything is as it seems. We get the story in pieces, told when Linda is much older and trying to reflect on the summer that changed her entire existence.
I’m going to be honest. I did not care for this book much at all. The plot was messy and incoherent at times. There was no reason for why so many flashbacks existed, and thus it didn’t feel purposeful or like it had any direction at all. It also just lacked the kind of finesse that you expect from a story this complicated. I think Emily Fridlund has real potential, but it’s not recognized in this book. And that may not be a bad thing. You may like it more than me, but I felt like I had read this kind of book before. We’ll see how Fridlund’s next novel goes.
I Love Idi Amin by Bishop Festo Kivengere
When I was in grade school, my mom (who had homeschooled me up through the second semester of ninth grade) purchased a set of Christian fiction books called Trailblazers. Written by Dave and Neta Jackson, these books focused on Christian historical heroes and were written from the perspective of a fictional kid or teenager who was in some way in the path of this hero. One of the stories I most remember is Assassins in the Cathedral, which focused on the life of Ugandan Anglican bishop Festo Kivengere. The protagonist of the story had lost his brother in a church assassination and hated Bishop Kivengere for his message of peaceful nonviolence towards dictator Idi Amin. His hatred grew to a fever pitch after the publication of Kivengere’s book I Love Idi Amin, which piqued my curiosity. The book ends on a note of resolution, but I always wondered about Kivengere’s book. I picked it up from Interlibrary Loan through one of my colleges, and read it in an afternoon.
Kivengere focuses on the narrative of Christianity in Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime, the sacrifices that were made, and the miracles that occurred. His own life was threatened as he had to flee the country in order to keep his work for the church alive. He chronicled the many triumphs that God implemented in Uganda even during dark times of persecution.
I picked up this book wanting a philosophical discussion of how to love your enemy (something I’m currently struggling with, I wonder why) and how to be a Christian in the face of oppression and terror. This book is much more narrative driven and doesn’t really tackle those questions until the last page or two. I’m not disappointed to read Christian heroes discuss their struggles, but I wish Kivengere had been a bit more philosophical and abstract in reflecting on his experiences.
Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher
On my road trip, The Chancellor and I were able to enjoy a second Carrie Fisher memoir, Shockaholic. We both enjoyed Wishful Drinking so much that we hoped we could attain a similar listening experience with Shockaholic. And while I was disappointed to see some crossover in family stories, I was not disappointed by the overall product.
Fisher delves much more deeply into her mental health problems, her life with her stepdad, and her own father’s brief relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. She discusses Star Wars a bit, and she also explains the story of the time she briefly dated a Senator. Her daughter features in the narrative and seems, for all intents and purposes, like a great kid. It’s quite similar to Wishful Drinking, though the threads of the narrative are not quite as coherent.
I didn’t first know if I’d like this as I was listening to it, particularly because it doesn’t have the same neat trajectory as Wishful Drinking, and it repeats a few of the same stories. However, it does deal quite candidly with mental health issues, and Fisher’s own experience with ECT helps de-stigmatize the treatment, which is also important. Further, her chapter on Michael Jackson gave me a LOT to think about. She delves into her relationship with him and her observations on his parenting and life. It was a poignant chapter, and because she herself had been a celebrity child and young celebrity, I believe she understood more of his experience than other people could. This is also a fantastic listen on audiobook, and while it’s not as neatly written or packaged as Wishful Drinking, it’s highly worth the listen, in my opinion.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
Carrie Fisher’s death was a huge blow to me in a year already plagued by so much devastation. I grew up watching Star Wars, and Princess Leia was a hero to me. I admired her grit, sarcasm, and determination. She showed me there were many ways to be a strong and successful woman. Fisher herself was no shrinking violet, either. Up till now, I hadn’t read her personal biographies, but I so admired her candor when dealing with body shamers during the press tour for The Force Awakens that I realized I should *probably* read her books at some point. Last weekend, The Chancellor and I took our annual trip to Louisville, where I go to an annual professional conference in my field. We requested several Carrie Fisher audiobooks (read by her) and had a rollicking good time.
Fisher unpacks her family and history in Wishful Drinking, starting with being the child of celebrities and growing up unusually. She discusses her parents’ divorce and her growing up in the limelight only to get a high-profile role in a film that changed her life young. She also discusses with incredible frankness her struggles with her bipolar disorder, her addictions, and her decision to receive electro-convulsion therapy to deal with her mental illness. Fisher is funny but blunt, and her voice is evocative and unique.
This book had me laughing, but listened to after Fisher’s death is also deeply melancholy. She discusses wanting her eulogy to be read as being strangled to death in moonlight by her own bra, which shows how very much of an offbeat person she was. She deconstructs the idea of celebrity and the glamor of a celebrity lifestyle with levity, which makes for an interesting, thought-provoking, and just plain enjoyable read.
One note: READ THE AUDIOBOOK! She reads it herself, and while it’s melancholy to hear her voice now that she’s gone, it’s totally worth the experience.
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
A few weeks back, I was engaged in a discussion on Pajiba about a certain American administrator’s relationship to black people and racist assumptions. One of the comments recommended a book: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. I was immediately intrigued. I’m trying to read more diverse work in order to be better informed and a more effective ally. This is a highly recommended book, though I will say this: if you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, stop reading this review, don’t pass go, and read Coates first. This book is a master class for when you’ve done some work.
Dyson frames his book about personal and systemic racism in the United States as a worship service. Each part of the book is split up into various parts: “Call to Worship”; “Hymns of Praise”; “Invocation”; “Scripture Reading”; “Sermon” (the longest part of the book); “Benediction”; “Offering Plate”; “Prelude to Service”; and “Closing Prayer.” Each of these parts develops Dyson’s argument well and connects his overarching theme to rich traditions and liturgy.
This is a powerfully written, incisive book. Dyson unpacks systemic racism well, and he also helps explain white privilege in a way that’s easy to understand and take ownership of. If you have had questions about white privilege and inequity in the United States, Dyson answers them well with logical arguments and personal experiences. If you read it with an open mind, you can potentially learn a lot. I certainly did.