Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review of Habibi by Craig Thompson

Sometimes a book comes along and it is so good, so profound, so heartbreaking and redeeming it stuns you into silence. You have no idea what to say about the book. That $20,000 English degree might as well be a placemat for all the good its doing you now. The silence that follows is profound, deep, and reverential.

I read this in one sitting. Beautiful inspiring unapologetically foreign and heartbreakingly humane. One of the few books I read this year that gave me hope for the species. Will no doubt reread and dip into for years to come.

It is about: two orphans.

It takes place: in a third world urban landscape in a middle eastern country. But it is also as timeless and placeless as the arabian nights or Grimm's Fables.

It is not for the faint of heart: rape, war, murder, mutilation, insanity stalk its pages.

But so do love and understanding. And regardless of the medium, that is hard for an artist to pull off.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review of A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen

Derrik Jensen's books are not really an enjoyable experience. He comes across as a bit of a crank at first and a militant eco advocate reformer. The prose style is engaging though. He has a definite voice. That voice is not shrill, and does not cry about the end of the world. A technique perhaps better expressed on a soapbox on a street corner. Instead the voice that comes across is rational, precise, scientific(he was an engineer in college), sarcastic and ironic, but not in any way shape or form delusional.

I was worried when I began the book about how he seemed like he was going to tie his own experiences of being a victim of childhood abuse(his father raped and beat him and his siblings and their mother) to the larger issue of the destruction of the planet and indigenous people. I felt myself backpedaling and wanting to say "Uh dude, I don’t think they are connected. I think that what happened to you has made you think of the world in this way."

Alas, I was wrong.

Derrik Jensen's A Language Other Than Words is not just a chronicle of his childhood abuse, how he carried the scars with him and what it has taken for him to heal. It is rather, and amazingly so, an investigation into why Civilization and Abuse seem so closely connected to each other.

He draws parallels between what his father had done and the father's justifications: to make you stronger, you made me do it, etc, and our culture's justifications for what it does to the planet and general population. If one looks at our culture writ large, and the damage done on a daily basis by corporate entities who deforest, pollute and use up without a single shred of guilt, remorse, or in any way shape or form concern over what their actions are doing to the planet, then it is hard not to see his father's justifications tied into some mentality that arises in civilization.

In essence then the book becomes more an examination of not so much abuse as of use. The idea and mentality that has arisen in our history of just using the world around us, the people around us, all to further goals and ends that benefit the few. This idea that it is ok to disregard entire species and populations in order that a select group thrives, is something he looks at closely. He sees it everywhere civilization "thrives."

And it’s the idea that what has happened is that civilization itself seems to have a chronic lack of awareness regarding what it does that the book's argument truly hinges on.

In a section I found particularly disturbing(which, after all, is what he plans to do), perhaps because of my philosophy interests, he takes on Descartes famous claim to subjectivity "I think, therefore I am," as one of the starting grounds for this sickness of use. The idea that since I know I exist, but don't know if you do, its ok for me to act as though you don't exist. And when you do that, he warns, you become dangerous. From that simple philosophic declaration its easy to start the culture of use/abuse.

When an author announces that Civilization is doomed my inner ear shuts down and I stop listening even though I may keep reading. But there is a difference here.

In the preface he states that he wanted to write a feel good book, about his experiences with coyotes. But then question led to question and before he knew it these questions led him down some dark paths and he was questioning the whole basis for civilization. Why does it seem, he writes, to stem from this crazy impulse to control and regulate, and in essence abuse our environment.

And that journey is disturbing, profound and thought provoking. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but for sheer skill and force with which he makes you look at these questions from an entirely fresh angle, the experience is not to be missed.

In another of his books which I took to heart, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, he states his number one writing mantra, and the message he tries to teach his writing students, is DON’T BORE THE READER.

Be prepared not to be bored. Outraged. Shocked. Disturbed. Forced to have thoughts you'd rather not have at 3 am, but most certainly not bored.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

I prefer the title of the English edition of this book: Orwell's Victory. That title more accurately covers Christopher Hitchens' purpose. The book consists of a series of rebuttals to Orwell's critics and their respective 'camps:' the Left, the Right, Feminists, Colonial apologists, Americans, literary critics, and others. Each one of these respective schools are targeted by Hitchens, and their arguments against Orwell the writer and the man are addressed.

The description of the book on Goodreads and Amazon contained a blurb which said that Hitchens removes the image of Orwell as a plaster saint, and draws a portrait of the man as he was.

This is not strictly accurate. Instead of a biography that meticulously details Orwell's life and writings Hitchens here instead writes a defense of Orwell's basic positions on the various above topics. In doing so he highlights how Orwell's comments and writings, were co-opted, misinterpreted, or in some cases even blatantly misquoted and used to support arguments and positions he never supported The book digs down through the actual writings and shows what it was Orwell actually said or wrote, as opposed to what he is rumored or others claimed he wrote.

Hitchens is like a Homeric Fighter defending the fallen Orwell's body from all who would 'strip him of his armor.' The fights with some of Orwell's detractors are bloody, as in the section where he defends Orwell from an allegation that he supplied a blacklist of English civil servants who might be communists to the BBC(he didn’t. It was an entry in his journal of a parlor game he and his friends played as to who they suspected were communists or collaborators and who would most quickly cave in the face of a dictatorship or invasion).

What emerges more than anything else in these pages is the idea that Orwell's great enemy and the great evil of his time was Stalin and Stalinism. Orwell witnessed first hand during the Spanish Civil War the lies and propaganda and atrocities committed by the communists against other left leaning groups fighting alongside them. The communists ruthlessly attacked and tried and executed all other groups who had been united in fighting Franco's Fascists. Orwell recognized the need to write of what happened. He saw Stalin's agents everywhere subverting, destroying, and attacking all non communists. This zero toleration of other's political views is what most galled him. And later, during WW2 when the allies saw Stalin as the savior against the Germans Orwell was quick to point out the record of the man, and what his regime had done. There were members of the British government who were working with and for Stalin and some had an active hand in repressing Orwell's books.

Orwell's supposed unflattering portrayal of women as a significant of his anti woman attitude is addressed and effectively demolished. He wrote of a certain type of female in certain type of settings(bossy, domineering, with a hint of cruelty) but this is, as Hitchens points out through letters, journals, and others accounts of Orwell, not representative of how he felt about women in general. He did in fact marry several beautiful, intelligent, and independent women through the course of his life.

Hitchens is fair though. In the book he shows that Orwell did indeed dislike homosexuals and homosexuality and often raved about them. Hitchens acknowledges this but also is quick to point out that perhaps his experiences at English prep schools might have created this.

As a defense for those familiar with Orwell's writings against those who would misuse him the book is worthwhile. There are some intriguing biographical details, but the book works better as a history of Orwell's ideas during and after his death. Hitchens is pugnacious and stubborn enough to go toe to toe with respected literary figures, politicians, and critics, and like a Homeric hero he permits no quarter and gives no mercy.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, and New Directions


When I started the blog I originally intened to review and discuss sci fi and fantasy novels, because those were what I devoured at the time. I still read them, with immense pleasure, but other concerns have sent me to books and areas of interest. Mostly political science, social science, and economics.

Which in a weird way is a kind of homecoming.

Let me explain.

When I was younger, in my in between college days(that is, when I was in between colleges after having dropped out for a few years), I read a lot of George Orwell. A book I read and reread over and over was The Road to Wigan Pier.

Now as I've stated on the blog before, I grew up and currently live in a former coal mining town in Pennsylvania, which for you Non American Readers is about 250 miles from New York City. I can get to NYC in about 2.5 hours by car.

I mention this because the subject of Orwell's book is a mining community and the lives of the people he finds there, and what forces have come together to make such a brutal existence.

I remember being entranced by the book, captivated by the lives of the people and descriptions of the ugly coal hills and dirty conditions that to me seemed as though I were reading an accurate description of my hometown. One line in particular moved me deeply, when he described a young woman in winter with threadbare clothes trying to unstuck a drainage pipe in the freezing cold and looking into her eyes he saw she knew how miserable she was. Not ashamed of her poverty, but aware of just what a situation her life had been forced into. But in the same book Orwell focused on the Mine owners and operators, the exploitation, and the possibility of change. He broke down the system by which a few prosper and the many starve.

I learned a great deal from that book, and learned to question my previously held belief that the mines were just another step along the way of American Progress and the inhabitants were either too lazy to change their existence or just unfortunate.

Orwell, by his arguments, descriptions, and analysis, opened my eyes to the very real truth that what may appear to be the misfortune of others is often the culmination of calculated effort designed to maximize a profit.

I ended up back in college not long after, determined to "make something of myself." I pursued my English degree and studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Eliot(George and T.S.)and others, and from them also learned a great deal. Many were masters of prose, and insightful into the human condition. But Orwell was never really mentioned on any of the lists. He was often sneeringly referred to as a 'political writer," as if having a political agenda were an inhumane method by which to approach the making of art.

What has drawn me back to Orwell, and to the political writers, social scientists, economists, and other like minded thinkers is the same absolute clarity, the same awareness that something is indeed very, very wrong. That our system is not just going through a series of ups and down with this being one brutal down cycle, but that the system itself is flawed, and unless we learn, educate ourselves, it will only get worse.

I am going to read as much Orwell as I can find. He is, in a sense, my Virgil on this journey. Though I am not sure I will agree with all of his political views, I do think I can learn much. Nor do I think I will hold him in overly high esteem. I do not intend to found a cult of Saint George. He will show I’m sure his failings as a writer and thinker as any other human who tries to write and communicate.

But more than read Orwell I intend to open the blog up some. Write essays about the times, things I see, people I meet, situations that for lack of a better term, are as miserable and squalid as those I read about in Road to Wigan Pier, or its companion piece, Down and Out in Paris and London. Strip away the cant, and the corporate coded version of reality, see the ugliness as well as the hopefulness underneath.

Lionel Trilling once wrote of Orwell that he "had a kind of genius to look at things in a simple, undecieved way." He was not a master stylist(or so Trilling complains. I think his style is effective). He could not create characters with such life and power as a Dickens, a Bronte. Yet I cannot help but think that in our own times, when what we see and hear and read and watch is so controlled by a group of media giants who want to force fear and consumerism down our throats, that this ability, this looking at things in a his own simple, undecieved way, is something we sorely need.