Nineteen Eighty-Four | Goodreads Review

Nineteen Eighty-FourNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a sophomore in high school. I understood the novel then as political allegory, a dystopian fantasy of a possible, but unlikely, future. Like many Cold War kids, Oceania seemed to me an alternative future West fallen into the authoritarian trap of the Soviet Union and Communist China. I understood that Orwell wasn’t making a hard prediction about my imminent future. I was ten years old in 1984. None of that stuff had actually happened.

I recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four expecting to be newly terrified by the prescience of Orwell’s warnings. I was. Big Brother’s authoritarian regime maintains power through a combination of surveillance technologies, willfully impoverished discourse, an infinitely malleable sense of the historical record and a collective surrender of belief in historical truth.

I reread the book thinking the surveillance situation is much worse. Winston has to navigate the omnipresence of bidirectional telescreens on every wall. We carry our own personal surveillance machines in our pockets and dutifully report through the day via social media. The day after I finished reading, I saw my first ad for Facebook’s Portal, which has Muppets happily chatting away through the convenience of smart televisions converted into living room telescreens. Add Siri and Alexa. What can go wrong?

Orwell might not have imagined emoji culture, the gradual transformation of written language into a hieroglyphic soup of images and gifs. If you can’t find a suitable GIF to express a reaction to the news of the day, is your reaction really worth expressing? The Ministry of Truth might admire the efficiency with which we are thinning the dictionary for ourselves.

Finally: history, which deserves its own essay. Impossible to ignore the constant stream of news releases and press statements issuing from the White House saying the President didn’t actually say the thing we all just heard him say. And the ever shifting sand of which countries are allies and which enemies. It is enough to know that we have always been at war and will always be at war. The details of how we are fighting and why change quickly. Who can keep up?

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book written to unsettle. It does. Most unsettling, in my latest read is the ease with which people adapt to the new situation. Winston grew up in times like our own. He remembers different rules, different norms. He remembers he had a mother who loved him and a sister. He just can’t quite remember what happened to them. Society under Big Brother is a society organized to forget, to be mollified and directed. The privileged adapt most quickly because they have the most to gain.

And so, rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2019, I am thinking less about surveillance tech and government misinformation campaigns and perpetual war. I am thinking about the Two Minute Hate, that purging parade of raw emotion that unites everyone in a blind, patriotic fever. The enemy changes during the rally and no one notices. No one cares. The core values we carry as baseline assumptions for how democratic society operates — social and family bonds, rule of law, civil discourse, the value of dissent — are lost in the span of one generation. It takes one generation raised with new rules, new norms and new language, to create a generation incapable of the habits of thought that make democracy possible. They haven’t actively rejected democratic society. They can no longer imagine it.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is worth a read if you haven’t read it recently. The first half is a little bit of slog. The second half is the stuff of nightmares. Read to be disturbed. Read to become distrustful. Not only of government but distrustful of ourselves.

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More Thoughts on Chekhov as the Father of Flash Fiction

Yesterday, it seems I made too much of the difficulty of reading Anton Chekhov, too much of the opacity of his text, too much of his Russianess. I called him the father of flash fiction. That’s a statement worth explaining.

First, I should say that I love writing flash fiction but don’t alway love reading it. In the wrong hands, perhaps my own hands, flash fiction can feel lazy, an abbreviated form of story telling for the internet age where everything connects to everything and so nothing really ever stands entirely on its own. Flash fiction is often heavy on the flash and sparing on the fiction. There is a temptation to catch characters in the middle of doing something interesting without the need to define or understand how what they are doing affects or changes them. It is easy to introduce a quick character, punch the reader in the stomach with some powerful detail or twist and then take your leave. If the reader is aching from the well-placed punch, you must have told an impactful story.

Successful flash fiction should haunt a reader. The quickness of action, the spareness and specificity of detail should unsettle the reader and leave them wanting to glimpse a bit more. Successful flash fiction is like haiku. It should guide a reader through a specific, concrete physical reality, bring them to the edge of epiphany and then push them over with both hands. The reader of flash fiction, like the reader of haiku, tumbles headlong into a realization that is not contained or expressed in the story. It is a realization or understanding that does not belong to the writer.

This, it seems, is the mystery and wonder of Chekhov. I don’t understand most of his stories, but I don’t understand them in the way I don’t understand haiku or a zen koan. I know there’s something there. I just cannot always apprehend it. Most of this has to do with narrative choice. Chekhov explores moments that other writers tend to ignore. My favorite, and most accessible, of Chekhov’s stories is “The Lady with the Dog” in which he tells of an adulterous affair. At its center, a young married woman takes a vacation without her husband and meets an older, womanizing rake. His predatory nature draws him to the mysterious woman on the beach, the lady with the dog. He approaches her for conquest, but, quite accidentally, falls in love.

In other hands, the story would be a tawdry account of passions whetted and cooled, followed by the inevitable weighing of moral and ethical cost. Their impermissible love would set a trap and the story would be the trap closing, ensnaring them in its crushing, moral jaws. Instead, Chekhov offers the story of a man who wakes up to his own life and finds the simplest pleasures and joys offer complication and challenge. Their joy and sorry are not the price or reward. Their joy and sorry are just life. Nothing really special after all.

Spoiler alert. We leave the lovers with nothing resolved but a deep recognition that they will forever complicate one another’s lives. The last sentence: “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most difficult part of it was only just beginning.” (337)

That’s it. The end. Do they escape their not unhappy lives and make a different life together? Are their families destroyed? Are they rewarded or punished? Do they live happily ever after?

Don’t know. Don’t care.

I am haunted. The story cannot resolve and so, in a weird way, the story becomes a thing that belongs to me. My insight. My understanding. It is a narrative leap, not toward a moral lesson, but an imagined next thing.

This is a thing Chekhov does remarkably well. I stand by my original thoughts that Chekhov is difficult, opaque and very Russian. I also stand by Francine Prose’s assertion that Chekhov is writer for writers to read.

Haiku. Zen koan. Flash fiction. You should probably read Chekov.

Source text: Chekhov, Anton. “The Essential Tales of Chekhov.” Richard Ford, ed. Constance Garnett, trans. Ecco Press: New Jersey. 1998. [Find it in a library]

Essential Tales of Chekhov | Goodreads Review

The Essential Tales of ChekhovThe Essential Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finally read Chekhov because Francine Prose said I should. In her excellent Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Prose venerates Chekhov as the writer’s writer, the master of human emotion, keen observation and the devastatingly well-placed detail.

Prose offers Chekhov as a writer of superhuman intellect and heart. She writes, ““By the time Chekhov died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four, he had written, in addition to his plays, approximately six hundred short stories. He was also a medical doctor. He supervised the construction of clinics and schools, he was active in the Moscow Art Theatre, he married the famous actress Olga Knipper, he visited the infamous prison on Sakhalin Island and wrote a book about that.” (Prose 243) I happen to be 44 and suddenly feel like a slacker. I had to take a look.

Prose devotes an entire chapter to “Learning from Chekhov”. From Chekhov’s letters, “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.” (Prose 245) I was intrigued by the proposition that writers shouldn’t aim to solve problems but only ensure that the problem is properly stated.

And then this from Chekhov’s letters, “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything.” (Prose 246)

Yes.

Having read Prose, I understood that I was supposed to love Chekhov and love him deeply. I picked up The Essential Tales of Chekhov (Richard Ford, editor) thinking myself ready to love. The actual experience was something else. Not love. Remote admiration, perhaps. Confused esteem. Chekhov, it turns out, is very Russian. He writes about thoughts and feelings so fine, so nuanced and mature that I revert to a confused, naive youngster. After all, I’m only 44. What’s this story about? Love. Passion. Disappointment. And also something more. It is the something more I could not grasp.

There are, to be sure, clear moments of brilliance. There are many more moments that sail entirely over my head. I’m not grown up enough, or cultured enough or, perhaps, Russian enough.

Chekhov had always been presented to me as the master of showing not telling, but in the stories I read he tells more often than shows. The fascinating thing about Chekhov is where he starts and stops his stories. He does not begin with catastrophe and he does not end with resolution. The beginning and end are more ambiguous. We meet characters in the middle of their situations and leave them before they understand their situations for themselves.

Chekhov, to me, seems the forefather of flash fiction. Stories told quickly in a rush that isn’t actual impatience but an attention to weird, unexpected detail that alludes to bigger truths off-page.

You can, it turns out, appreciate Chekhov without exactly loving him. If you get the chance to read for yourself, I recommend “Hush!”, “An Anonymous Story” and “The Lady with the Dog”.

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The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey | Book Review

The Boy on the Bridge (The Hungry Plague, #2)The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much more than a zombie story, M.R. Carey’s The Boy on the Bridge blends science fiction and horror themes into a legit work of character-driven contemporary literature with insightful things to say about the human condition. The characters are complex and the dramatic tension builds throughout.

The Boy on the Bridge is set in the same universe as Carey’s first novel, The Girl With All the Gifts, which I enjoyed very much four years ago but remember few specific plot details. You can read either of these books without spoiling the other.

During the height of the Hungry Plague (aka zombie apocalypse), a small team of soldiers and scientists are dispatched to traverse the withered United Kingdom countryside to collect scientific samples that might help understand the plague and how to defend against it. The team is confined to the safety of Rosie, their oversized land rover, with occasional tension-laden excursions into the open. Discovery of a new kind of hungry presents the core scientific mystery and a Pandora’s box of moral dilemmas. Conflicting ideas about duty and loyalty drive the crew to make complicated decisions that bring the reader toward a devastating but thoroughly satisfying end.

Boy on the Bridge presents a slow start. It took me a few chapters to figure out where we were and what was happening but the action layers nicely to build a claustrophobic sense of dread and inescapability.

Boy on the Bridge is a dystopian novel with a hopeful heart. If you can enjoy reading about the collapse of civilization and the possibilities that might come after, this book will make you very happy. After, of course, it has already broken your heart.

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Soonish | Book Review

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin EverythingSoonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything by Kelly Weinersmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Soonish by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith is an enjoyable romp through the possibilities of near future technology. Light-hearted but informative, the authors explain how technologies in nascent stages today may underpin the way we live tomorrow. Underscore the word “may”. While Soonish exuberates in the ways technology could improve our daily lives, the authors harbor a healthy aversion to prophesy.

Rather than make specific predictions, Soonish presents categories of technology which, if the conditions are right, could significantly alter the way we live the middle and last part of this century. Soonish explores cheap access to space; asteroid mining; fusion; programmable matter; robotic construction; augmented reality; synthetic biology; precision, personalized medicine; bioprinting; and brain-computer interfaces. Each chapter gives a clear, easy-to-understand synopsis of the current science as well as concerns and specific thoughts on how developments in the field might change daily life.

Cartoons and dad jokes abound, but they are endearing and, quite often, actually funny. But I’m a dad, so I get dad jokes.

Read Soonish soon. The content will likely be dated in a few short years and, if there’s not another updated edition, the relevance of this book will expire. That said, it is a great book for right now. Fun, accessible and thought-provoking.

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Why We Read: A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I just finished reading an extraordinary book, Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. This post isn’t going to be a clever literary analysis or full of especially keen observations on the mechanics of a well-made story. I won’t gush on and on about the exquisite pacing, the truly-drawn characters and the subtle, satisfying twists that make this book so enjoyable. We can talk about all that some other time.

This is a thank you. I am grateful to the writer who made this story and to the friend who suggested I read it. This book found me at exactly the right time.

I am 40 years old. I am a reader. Since the age of 7, there has never been a time when I did not have at least one book in progress. There have been months and years when I have read less and more slowly than I had wanted. There have been entire years recently when I have felt my attention too scattered and dissipated to really enjoy my reading, but I have read anyway because it is a thing that I do. Reading is who I am.

This book reminds me of why I read.

I meet A.J. Fikry and recognize two things. 1: Individually, our lives are unsatisfying because they are too short and too limited. 2: We make our lives satisfying by connecting with other people. It is only by connecting our lives to other lives that we get to experience the richness and power of our purpose.

This is why we read.

We read to connect. We read to connect to the characters inside the stories. We read to connect to those people who have lived before us in other times at other places. We read to connect to the strange folk who spend their lives making up stories. We read to share ourselves with the world and to let the world share itself with us.

Life is full of plot twists. I hope it does not spoil things too much to tell you that Fikry becomes a father even though he is entirely unprepared for the experience. His life has been narrowed by loss and disappointment. He learns to make his life larger again by sharing it with his foundling daughter, Maya and through her with more and more people. As soon as he begins to open, his life grows and grows.

The novel is organized, in part, around journal entries Fikry writes for his daughter, in which he shares thoughts about the books and stories he has read. Each becomes a kind of sign post for life. The books he has read interpret the many frustrations, challenges and triumphs that make up a life. Fikry gives his daughter a love for books. In that love, she is given all the tools she needs to live a purposeful, joyful life.

As a father, I am inspired by the extraordinary gift Fikry has given his daughter. My own daughter is seven. I want her to be brave and curious and kind. I want her to feel at home in the world and help others feel at home as well. I want her life to be an adventure, full of purpose and work that demands her best attention and effort. I want her to connect deeply, as I have, with the people with whom she will share this world and with the people with whom she will share her shelves.

I am raising a reader because the world needs readers. The world needs thoughtful, reflective, curious minds tempered by generous, tender, expansive hearts.

I am grateful to this particular story at this particular moment for helping me remember.

This why I read. The world requires it.

What Writing’s For: An Appreciation of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is the most helpful, encouraging, and honest book about writing I have ever read. I’ve read a few.bird_by_bird

Most books about writing and the creative life come across preachy. It is hard to write about the creative process without sounding either prescriptive or condescending. I often avoid both traps by embracing vague, gushing hyperbole. (See for yourself.)

Reading books about writing is so often like candy. It makes me feel happy, enthusiastic and inspired for a few minutes, maybe a day, but then the bottom falls out. The bright ideals fade, and I am left with a crippling hangover, a shock of self-doubt and a fear of the page.

Inspiration rebound syndrome afflicts most aspiring writers. Bird by Bird is the antidote.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott achieves a friendly, familiar, no-nonsense tone. She is that best friend always telling you things you need, but don’t really want, to hear. She got me writing again, and here’s why: she gave me something better than inspiration. She gave me a useful perspective.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Most people who write will never be published. I should write anyway.
  • The first draft is going to suck. Write it with love but write it quickly. Get it out and behind me so I can write the second draft. It may suck too but each draft should get better.
  • Novels aren’t built the way they are read. Stories get told in layers. They aren’t lined up in neat rows. Writing is more like painting than brick laying.
  • My writing won’t save the world, but it may save my life.

And here’s what I carry that has made my writing easier and better. Writing and publishing are separate things. You have almost no control over whether or not your writing gets published and yet the act of writing itself gives a sense of control and purpose.

Writing is a practice. You can devote yourself to the practice. You can do it everyday. You can use writing to develop a sense of mindfulness. You can use writing to teach yourself to pay attention. You can use your writing as a way to cultivate empathy with others and recognize connections between people, ideas and the choices people make.

A life spent this way is a life filled with joy, deeper awareness and purpose. Even if no one reads what you have written, they will see it in the way you live your life. You will carry this habit, this way of seeing, around with you.

You will still be frustrated and confused but you may find yourself becoming more patient and less lonely. Your writing will teach you to appreciate your life. Your writing will constantly bring you back into the company of yourself.

This makes it work very much worth doing.

Find Bird by Bird in a library near you.

What books have helped you understand why so many of us bother writing?

 

 

 

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (book review)

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a short, savage, surreal meditation on the fate of women in fairy tales. A few of the stories succeed brilliantly. Most fall short. This is a collection of stories about men, women and the ways in which innocence is sometimes given, but more often taken. It is violent, bloody and sometimes vile. It is also, at turns, beautiful. Sometimes painfully so.

The men are beasts — lecherous, gluttonous, power-mad. As is often the case in fairy tales, the women are sacrificial virgins offered to sate the voracious appetites of terrible monsters. Sometimes, the women are ruined by failed, disastrous relationships. Sometimes, the women are rescued, Occasionally, the women give themselves over to their own transformations and become strange, beautiful, savage creatures in their own right.

The best story is the title story, which is a magically realistic retelling of The Beauty and the Beast. “The Company of Wolves” is also terrific. Wolves feature prominently throughout the stories — lycanthropes, condemned souls and a few strange twists on the Red Riding Hood theme.

There are plenty of wonders throughout the book and some really powerful imagery. Most generally, the writing is too heavy, packed tight with  arcane description. This collection of stories aspires to transport the reader. Skim through. It is a short book but I found myself taking a long time to read it. I pushed my way through. I was not carried.

Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie (book review)

This blog was never supposed to be about writing. Still, I  have been thinking and writing a lot about writing lately. This blog has put me in touch with a community of people are also thinking and writing a lot about writing. We are always seeking inspiration, communion and support. To those friends, I recommend Barbara Abercrombie’s Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement

As the title suggests, it is basically intended as a year-long writer’s toolkit for inspiration. I read it in 3 days. The entries are short — one or two pages for each day. Abercrombie provides practical, encouraging advice for writers. She does not pander or become too precious. She appreciates that writing is a struggle but doesn’t get wrapped up in the romance of that struggle.

She offers great quotes and stories from effective writers from across time. She blends their advice into a few basic tennets:

  • People who want to write better or write professionally must write every day.
  • Writers must read a lot.
  • Writers need a support network of disinterested peers who can criticize in a positive, ruthless manner.
  • Family members should not read what we write until the work is published and it is too late to turn back or make changes.
  • The best writing results from taking bad stuff out more than from adding good stuff in.
  • Unfortunately, it is as difficult to write a really bad book as it is is to write a really good book.
  • Always finish. Unless you can’t. Then don’t finish.
  • Find your process and stick with it. What works for others may not work for you. There is no recipe.

abercrombie-final.inddThe appendix offers the gift of 52 writing prompts to unstick stuck writers. They are pretty good.

Just a few pages into the book made me feel like writing. If you write or spend lots of time thinking about writing, you will enjoy this book very much.

On Monsters by Stephen Asma | Book Review

Stephen Asma’s On Monsters offers an enjoyable, if somewhat fractured, survey of monsterology through the ages. Monsters pre-date horror films and ghost stories. The concept of the “monstrous” has always been part of human experience. Each age understands monsters differently. The first half of On Monsters explores evolving understandings of monsters. In general, monsters stand outside normal experience. Monsters personify those things we do not or cannot understand. Monsters are a manifest acknowledgement of the limits of human understanding. As these limits change, our monsters change. Monsters dwell in the places we believe to be unknowable.

For the ancients, the unknowable places were empty spots on the map. This gave us the great sea monsters and terrible, cannibalistic races that inhabited the oceans and unfamiliar continents.

In Biblical times, monsters were agents of God, mysterious and unfathomable. Think Leviathan.

The earliest monsters were thought to be part of the natural order. They walked among us and lived in places we could not or should not go.

Medieval monsters were supernatural – witches and demons. They didn’t live in a special place of their own. They lived everywhere and regularly intervened in the lives of the non-righteous.

With the Enlightenment, came the medical fascination with mutation and physical aberration in the human family. “Monsters” were no longer mythical. They were miscreants, captured and preserved in jars, and offering a measure of enjoyable frisson for collectors of oddities and the paying customers of these collections. The Mutter Museum is one of the most famous collections.

Over the past 200 years or so, our ideas about monsters have become internalized and have represented what we believe we cannot understand about ourselves. Modern times have been preoccupied with psychological monsters, like serial killers, tyrants and sociopaths.

Asma is at his best theorizing on the horror genre as the “art of human vulnerability”. He is particularly clever in his discussion of slasher films and “torture porn” and how they either explore or exploit the understood limits of human vulnerability to either empower or debase.

The second half of the book is less successful. Asma struggles with contemporary notions of the monstrous in the fields of cosmetic surgery, terrorism, robots and cyborgs. This is fertile ground for exploration but he does not bring these threads to any satisfying conclusion.

For most of human history, monsters were aberrations from the intended order of things. With the advent of biotechnologies and cybernetics we are faced with the possibility that there may be no final intended order of things. If there is no intended order to things, then some would suggest there can be no monsters. Everything becomes monstrous. Asma does not reject the promise of the new technologies to improve the quality of human life. But neither is he willing to abandon the concept of the monstrous as a useful indication of something still somewhat poorly defined.