Sunday, 14 November 2010

Top Ten Favourite Books - Number 8 (Big Brother is Watching)

When I first started thinking about doing a Blog on books, I made up a Top Ten list so that I'd at least have something to write about when I couldn't think about anything else. Well, as time has gone by, the list has undergone some slight revisions. I had originally listed The Princess Bride, by William Goldman in this spot. However, the more I thought about it, I really didn't have much to say. It's one of those books that I did enjoy tremendously, but when I thought about it, it's the movie I preferred. I didn't actually read the book until I'd watched the movie a few times.

The other day when I went to the Rotary Club Book Sale, I found a copy of a book that had disappeared from my collection a few years ago, probably quite a few in fact. Needless to say, I was thrilled to find an edition in such excellent condition of Nineteen Eighty - Four, by George Orwell. It was finding this book that made me revisit my Top Ten List.

Firstly, it is an iconic work of Science Fiction, that has impacted not only countless readers, but I think has affected many other authors with its theme of the little man battling against Big Brother/ or government. Besides that, once I had it in my grubby paws, it brought back such fond memories. I've read it two or three times in the past years and have enjoyed totally each and every time.

The book has been the subject of BBC programs, two excellent movies, the first in 1956, starring Edmund O'Brien in the role of Winston Smith, the little man and the timely 1984 version, with John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton in his last film role before his death, in.. yes, you guessed it 1984.

For those who may not have read the book or seen any of the film adaptations, here is the basic premise, as taken from the jacket of the pictured book. This Penguin version, for your information, was first published in 1954 (the book was written in 1949), with this edition printed in 1964. Anyway, back to the summary...

"1984 is the year in which it happens. The world is divided into three great powers, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, each perpetually at war with the other. Throughout Oceania, 'The Party' rules by the agency of four ministries, whose power is absolute - the Ministry of Peace which deals with war, the Ministry of Love (headquarters of the dreaded Thought Police) which deals with law and order, the Ministry of Plenty which deals in scarcities, and the Ministry of Truth which deals with propaganda. The authorities keep a check on every action, word, gesture, or thought.' Hence the well - known phrase, "Big Brother is Watching".

It was and still is a fascinating book, the story of Winston Smith, the lowly functionary who works revising historical historical records to ensure they match with current government philosophies. his world is rocked when he helps Julia, who hands him a note stating "I Love You". And with that begins his spiralling life surreptitiously meeting with Julia, trying to avoid the Thought Police.

Even though we are now in 2010, the book still resonates. The question in 1984, when the movie was redone and new editions of the book published, was whether his vision of the world had taken place?Look at some aspects, such as CCTV in which your life is monitored, DNA registries, complex computer systems that track your financial transactions, your life in Blogs, etc. In some ways he was a pretty darn good forecaster of the future. But in others, maybe he wasn't so correct, that being that on the whole, the Western world does still permit freedom of expression, freedom of ideas. Even with the US Department of Homeland Security and the like, with the constant threat against individual freedoms vs security for the majority, we're probably not quite in Winston Smith's world yet.

I think one of my favourite parts of 1984 was Appendix 1, The Principles of Newspeak in which Orwell outlines the principal language of Oceania. For example, the use of the word 'free' was still acceptable, but only in the context of "The dog is free of lice", but not in the Oldspeak context of "intellectually or politically free". I'm so very glad I found this copy of 1984 as it has rekindled my interest in the book and also in George Orwell's other writings.

Other George Orwell novels

I have previously read only one other Orwell novel, his other iconic text, Animal Farm. I first became aware of the story when I saw the animated movie version of the story as a child. For me, and I'm quite sure I saw it in the early 60's on TV, it was sort of scary. The animals revolting and taking over Manor Farm.

The book was written in 1945, the edition on the left republished in 1985. It's the story of how the animals, lead by the pigs Snowball and Napoleon, take over Manor Farm. The basic commandment of the animals is "All animals are equal." Eventually, and this is where it gets scary, Napoleon takes over with the help of the dogs and chases Snowball away.

I won't get into it anymore in case you haven't read before because it is worth reading. The book reflects Orwell's suspicions concerning Communism as ruled by Joseph Stalin. You should read.

In the past few months (maybe years) I have found a couple of other Orwell books in my used book store explorations that are now on my 'to be read' shelf.

Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London was written in 1933 as a documentary narrative of Orwell's personal travels.

It's a factual account of his experiences among the poor of both capital cities.

In this edition the cover art shows a detail from "Bank Holiday in the Park" by William Roberts.

Burmese Days was one of Orwell's earliest novels, first published in 1934.

It reflects his impressions of the final days of the British Empire experienced during his days as a Police Officer in Burma.

The story was originally written in 1934 and this Penguin edition printed in 1969. As an aside, I've got to say if you want to have some nice books in your bookshelf, you can't go wrong with some Penguin Books. They add a wonderful look and touch to any display of books.

Burmese Days as described on the jacket -

"Flory, a timber merchant, has educated himself to a point of self disgust and acute horror of the other English people in a small town in upper Burma. Then Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives in Kyauktada to stay with her uncle. Flory sees in her a chance to escape from his drunken womanizing bachelordom, but he reckons without the wiles of U Po Kyin, the magistrate, the jealousy of a scheming ex-mistress, and above all, the cold opportunism of Elizabeth herself.." .. and the plot thickens.

Other Big Brothers

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932. It is Huxley's best known novel. The version featured was printed in 1975 and I've had it since my university days.

The story is set in AD 2540 and everyone is ruled by the World State. To keep itself in power, this means that all people are conditioned from birth in the State's values; 'buy a new one instead of fixing the old one, because constant consumption, and near-universal employment to meet society's material demands, is the bedrock of economic and social stability for the World State.'

The book tells the story of Bernard, an alpha male who doesn't fit in because of his inferior stature and of Lenina, a vaccination worker who is attractive to a variety of males.

 Honestly, I can't say this is one of my all time favourite SciFi novels. I did take it in my Science Fiction novel course at University (I did indeed take a few 'bird' courses) and it does stand a test of time, one of those books that should be read.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is another classic of the sci fi genre. It's another of my favourites. I guess I have a thing for the underdog.

It's the story of Guy Montag, a fireman, whose job is, instead of fighting fires, setting fires. He is part of a team that goes to the homes of dissidents, finding their stashes of books and burning them.. Hssssssssss! Boooooooo! (The title is explained within the book as the temperature at which book paper catches fire.

Like Winston Graham, Montag begins to question his life. Montag wanders through his life by rote, his marriage is boring, his life questionable. It's when he meets Clarisse McClellan that his life changes and he turns his questions into actions. I won't go any further in my summary, as the book is really a must read and I wouldn't want to ruin any of it.

The book was also a subject of quite a good movie, directed by Francois Truffaut and starring Oscar Werner as Montag and the lovely Julie Christie as Clarisse. I have read that Bradbury was so happy with the ending of the movie that he changed his version in future versions of the book. All in all, I highly recommend this book.

Another of my favourite stories in the Big Brother type futures is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I had read a couple of Margaret Atwood's other earlier Canadian Literature (Can Lit) stories while I was at University; Surfacing was one of the books we took in my first year Canadian Fiction course and I tried The Edible Woman and a book of her poetry, The Circle Game,but neither was my type of story.

In 1985, she tried her hand at science fiction with The Handmaid's Tale and hooked me. It incorporated her vision of an Orwellian future and also her feminist view of the world. the story deals with a future United States which has become sexually repressed new world called The Republic of Gilead. In it the world is ruled by an intolerable theocracy of religious extremists. The story revolves around Offred, a woman taken from her husband and family to become one of the handmaids, whose role, since she has been determined to be fertile, is to procreate for the Commander and his infertile wife. Once again you have a battle of the individual against the whole. This is an excellent story that I've read again and again and know I would enjoy again. It was also the subject of a well received movie, written by Margaret Atwood and Harold Pinter and starring Natasha Richardson as Offred, and Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway as the Commander and his wife. I heartily recommend both.

The final book I'd like to recommend in this genre is P.D. James' Children of Men, published in 1985. This book was also subject of a film, with a pretty good cast, Clive Owen as the protagonist, Julianne as the female foil. But I've got to say it did not work. I so looked forward to seeing this movie and it was a total waste of time, so disappointing.

The book was excellent. P.D. James is noted for her Inspector Adam Dalgleish mysteries. This was a bit of a change for her and in my mind, it really worked.

Similar to the Handmaid's Tale, it does deal with mass infertility. It is set in England in 2021 and deals with a country that is steadily depopulating but there of course are a group of dissidents who don't follow the popular theories.

In this story the main character is an Oxford don , Theo Faron. Once again, this main male character meets a female Julian, who is part of a dissident group called the Five Fishes and they want Faron to approach his cousin who has been elected (decreed Warden of England) to persuade him to enact a variety of reforms including returning to a more democratic system. And the story goes on from there with the government chasing this group, especially since one is pregnant.

Once again, I enjoyed this story greatly and it fit nicely into the big government controlling the lives of its citizens and an individual/ small group of dissidents working against this tyrannical overrule.

I recommend all the above books and hope you take a chance on them.

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