Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

Big Brother is watching you

Big Brother is watching you

This is definitely one of those ‘books to read before you die’.  It’s on all the lists, everyone always recommends it to you, and rightly so.  It’s brilliant.  Terrifying, but brilliant.

It’s set in Oceania in a dystopian future (1984 was the future when this was written – 1949.) This is a world of government surveillance, totalitarian ideology and mind control.  Deviating from the permitted ideals is seen as ‘thoughtcrime’ and punished by the Party led by their revered leader (who may or may not exist) Big Brother.

The protagonist is Winston Smith who works for the Ministry of Truth, which in actuality is a purveyor of lies.  Winston’s job is essentially to re-write history to suit the Party’s propaganda.  There’s also the Ministry of Plenty (overseeing shortage and famine), Ministry of Love (overseeing torture) and the Ministry of Peace which oversees war and devastation.

Winston hates this existence, but is terrified by the consequences of speaking out.  After becoming suspicious that his co-worker O’Brien has similar feelings, He is invited to join the ‘Brotherhood’ – a secret resistance movement seeking to overthrow the government – through which Winston, and his girlfriend Julia, are plunged into impending danger and the ever-present threat of torture in Room 101.

This controversial book really is a must-read.  Unlike some of the other classics, this is relatively short, easy to read and exciting throughout.  If you’ve already read it, you’ll know what I mean.  If not, shame on you – go and read it now!

Sample Text:

“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Further Reading:

If you like the dystopian theme you might like Brave New World.

If you like this author you might like Animal Farm.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment - a true classic

Crime and Punishment – a true classic

This piece of classic Russian literature has become a must read in all Russian schools.  It also appears on pretty much every ‘must read’ book list and, because it appears on the BBC Big Read list 2010, I decided to read it.

It tells the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a law student who decides to test a theory he has come up with.  This theory is that all great leaders (e.g. Napoleon, Muhammed etc.) are only great because they will do whatever it takes to succeed.  The normal rules of society do not apply to them as they are extraordinary men.  Raskolnikov suggests that such great leaders take what they want and kill anyone who gets in their way, because as extraordinary men they are ‘allowed’ to do so. This single-mindedness is what sets them apart.

In order to test this theory Raskolnikov robs and murders a pawn-broker in order to become great.  He reasons that he can use the spoils to do good deeds, whilst ridding the world of a worthless unscrupulous woman. What he doesn’t expect is the paranoia and guilt that sets in afterwards.  Delirious with fever and convinced he will be discovered he is confined to a bed, watching whilst his friends and the police discuss the crime.

Although the crime and subsequent punishment are the purpose of the story, the reader gains a real insight into Russian life during the 19th Century.  How people are just expected to respect Raskolnikov purely because he is academic and aspire to be like Luzhin because he is rich.

As with most Russian literature I have read, this book is about a third too long.  I always find these stories tend to drag a little bit, yet I still go back to read more.  Glutton for punishment or quality writing?  Or maybe just both.

Whether or Raskolnikov ever faces the courts I won’t reveal here in case any of you fancy reading it, but regardless of this the real punishment is Raskolnikovs own mind.  What took weeks of planning and a few minutes to carry out takes years and years to atone for.  This is the real theme of the story, how far do we believe in right and wrong without even realising it?  Even without a legal justice system, surely one’s own mind should be deterrent enough?

Sample Text:

“ Hundreds, thousands perhaps, might be set on the right path; dozens of families saved from destitution, from ruin, from vice, from the Lock hospitals—and all with her money. Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic! Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in the balance of existence! No more than the life of a louse, of a black-beetle, less in fact because the old woman is doing harm. She is wearing out the lives of others.”

Further reading:

If you like classic Russian literature you may enjoy One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

If you like the theme of a random killing you might like The Stranger

Senor Vivo And The Coca Lord – Louis De Bernieres

Senor Vivo And the Coca Lord - my favourite of De Bernieres South American trilogy

Senor Vivo And the Coca Lord – my favourite of De Bernieres South American trilogy

This is the second in De Bernieres wildly imaginiative Latin American trilogy, after The War Of Don Emmanuels Nether Parts. Whereas the first focuses primarily on politics, this story is a scathing attack on the drug trade.  The eponymous hero, Dionisio, is a philosophy professor who provokes the wrath of the cartels with his public letter writing campaign.

Yet, when the drug lords send hit men to get rid of him they inexplicably fail every time.  Baffled by his seeming invincibility, a myth builds up, that Dionisio is in fact a ‘brujo’ (sorcerer) and shouldn’t be messed with.  As a result, he acquires a wide following, with women trekking across the country in the hope of bearing his children.

Seemingly oblivious to his influence, and ignoring the pleas of his best friend Ramon and girlfriend Anica, Dionisio continues his campaign with some help along the way from some familiar faces from the first novel, including Aurelio, Don Emmanuel and the mysteriously tame jaguars.

When the cartels realise they can’t get to Dio directly, they decide to pick off the people closest to him.  This results in some truly horrific and heartbreaking scenes, which, ten years after first reading this book, still stay with me to this day.  But they are not the only element.  There’s also romance, and quite believable romance too, not all mushy and soppy.  There’s a sub-plot involving Lazaro, a poor leper seeking salvation which I also found devastating, and Father Garcia, a levitating priest.  Once again, there’s a heap of magical realism here, but the whole plot is peppered with such colourful, bright, distinctive characters which give the entire trilogy an immense sense of fun. This is its greatest triumph.  Ten years after reading it, it’s still among my favourite ever books and remains vivid in my mind.  Just writing this has made me realise that I need to go off and read it again and I recommend you do too.

Sample text:

“And that Ecobandodo who is fat enough to weigh as much as eight people jammed into a lift, he gets up in the horsebox, and out he rides on a white horse caparisoned in a bridle and saddle and garra so rich that it could have paid off the national debt in one fell swoop.  And the poor horse is staggering beneath the weight and looks like it is going to fall over, and then Ecobandodo actually rides it across the fresh gravel of the palace courtyard with all his tame pressmen in tow taking sycophantic pictures and scribbling down quotes, and the fat shit is actually throwing bundles of thousand-peso notes and sachets of coca amongst the crowd that overwhelms the palace guard who are last seen on their hands and knees in full ceremonial dress cramming the money into their polished helmets with the horsetail plumes just like the ones at Buckingham Palace, and they are even cramming it down their high boots and into the little boxes on the back of their Sam Brownes, and it turns out that one of the soldiers had his little box full of contraceptives which he empties out on the gravel to make space for the money, and the newspapers print a full-page photograph of him doing it and invite the readers to send in the best caption, and the winner gets a free holiday for two in Punta del Este, paid for by Pablo Ecobandodo who will personally hand over the tickets at a gala presentation.”

Further reading:

If you like the characters you might like The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman

If you like magical realism you might like The Master And Margarita

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas - a bit too much like showing off for my liking

Cloud Atlas – a bit too much like showing off for my liking

Written in 2004, Cloud Atlas consists of six separate stories that span the centuries, ranging from the 19th century to a distant post-apocalyptic future.  The first five stories all are interrupted at a crucial moment and, after the sixth story reaches its conclusion, we return to the first five in reverse chronological order, ending back in the 19th century (Still with me?)

Each story is written in a different style to the previous one.  Whilst I think this is a great skill, it also seemed a bit like showing off to me.  The first four stories I found entertaining enough, but by the fifth and sixth I got rather bored and impatient to return to the fourth.

The first story is entitled The Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing.  Slowly throughout this story, we see how it affects the central character in the second story, entitled Letters From Zedelghem. This story is all told in the form of Letters to and from Robert Frobisher. Again, in the third story (Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery) we see how Frobisher has affected the life of Luisa Rey.  This story is a mystery thriller set in California.

The fourth story is a daft British comedy, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.  In this, the protagonist reads a book about Luisa Rey, thereby linking him to the grand scheme of things.  From here, things get futuristic, with the fifth story about a dystopian future and a slave called Sonmi-451.  To my mind, this story is too futuristic, with too much jargon and goes on far too long.  Sonmi-451 watches a film about Timothy Cavendish which is how she links in to the book.

Lastly is Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.  This is even more distant future after some terrible event known simply as ‘the fall’.  Humans are once again reduced to primitivism and worship a goddess called, yep you guessed it, Sonmi.

Cloud Atlas is quite a challenging book to read.  As the stories jump around I found it didn’t really hold my attention, which has been one of the biggest criticisms of it.  However, it has mostly received praise and positive reviews so I’m willing to accept it’s a good book, but only about half of it was to my taste.

Sample Text:

“To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you assume we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.”   from An Orison of Sonmi-451.

“I elbowed my way into the grubby café, bought a pie that tasted of shoe polish and a pot of tea with cork crumbs floating in it, and eavesdropped on a pair of Shetland pony breeders. Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will. “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.” from The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.

Further Reading:

If you liked the dystopian future you might like 1984

If you like the detective mystery thriller you might like The Maltese Falcon