Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell

Intro

Snapshot: British writer George Orwell goes to Spain to fight with the Loyalists/Republicans against the Nationalists led General Francisco Franco. Orwell sees little combat but is wounded. Orwell describes the political situation in Spain and Europe two years before World War II.

“Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell is a fun and fascinating book.

Homage to Catalonia

George Orwell

George Orwell was an English novelist, journalist and social critic. He is famous for his two best novels “Animal Farm” and “1984.” George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair. Orwell was born on June 25, 1903, in India. His father was a middle-level civil servant.

A year after his birth, his mother brought him home to England. In 1911, he was sent to boarding school at Eton. After Eton, his family didn’t have the money for a university education.

Orwell spent the next five years in Burma as part of the Imperial Police Force. In 1927, he returned to England, intent on becoming a writer. Orwell lived meekly among the poor. He published a few books with little success. In June 1936, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

In 1936, he traveled to Spain. He joined a group fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His adventures in Spain form the basis of “Homage to Catalonia.”

In 1945, he wrote “Animal Farm.” The book was anti-Soviet satire in a pastoral setting on a farm with animals.   In 1949, he published his masterwork of “1984.” It’s a chilling glimpse into a world where the government controls our lives.

Orwell died on January 21, 1950, in a London hospital from tuberculosis.

Background

Elections in 1931 made Spain a republic. The King left Spain and the Second Spanish Republic was established.

The Liberal Party came to power. Women gained the right to vote, and the power of the Catholic Church was diminished. The wealthy, the Church and other conservative groups rallied against the newly elected government.

Finally, members of the army rebelled. The “Juntos,” a group of rebel generals, named Francisco Franco, as head of state. From Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy came money, more than 50,000 troops, and equipment in support of the Rebels.

Civil War

The Spanish Civil War went from July 1936 to April 1939. The Spanish Civil War was a dress rehearsal for World War II. German soldiers fighting in Spain refined their tactics and plans later for the invasions of Poland, France, and Russia.

Volunteers from all over the world surged into Spain to aid the ailing Republic in its fight against Fascism. Among the volunteers were more than 3,300 Americans. Many sacrificed their lives.

The American volunteers made-up the 15th International (Lincoln) Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army. Their aim was to stop Hitler and Mussolini from using Spain as a springboard for their invasion across Europe.

Oliver Law, an African- American, communist, was selected by a committee of three white officers to lead the brigade. Law was the first African-American commander to lead an integrated military force in the history of the United States. Law was killed in the fighting.

Summary

In late 1936, Orwell went to Spain to cover the war as a journalist. He got caught up in the revolutionary spirit. He joined a Republican militia. He fought in Northwest Spain in the Basque region of Catalonia.

Source: Simon & Schuster

He spent three months in the trenches at the front. He saw little combat. He was mostly bored, hungry and exhausted. Orwell went on leave. He went to Barcelona to see his wife. In Barcelona, fighting breaks out between rival Republican groups.

Orwell returned to the front. He was shot in the throat and arm. He was evacuated to a hospital. He partially recovers. The group he was fighting with (POUM) is suppressed. Members were arrested, jailed and sometimes killed.

Orwell, his wife, and a few comrades escaped to France. He returned to England. Orwell wrote the book in 1938 before the war ended.

Analysis

“Homage to Catalonia” is written with a first-person, limited, point of view. Orwell is candid and straightforward about his wartime experience. You get the feeling, “he has been there and done that.”

Orwell Quote

His writing is enjoyable and engaging. Orwell uses imagery and themes throughout the memoir. Short words and phrases are used as a straightforward as possible.

He uses lots and lots of detail to paint an image in your head the scene he is describing. The book is written in standard journalistic prose. Facts, scenes, and events are presented in a professional manner. Often you feel like you’re listening to a war story from a buddy at a bar over a beer.

Orwell presents the political situation in Spain. He gives you his perspective on-the-ground in Spain fighting against the Fascists.

Impression

I really enjoyed this book. It was an excellent introduction to Orwell. George Orwell, the man, fascinates me. He is a complex mass of confusions.

Orwell is pro-English but anti-establishment. He is a proud graduate of Eton College, where the English ruling class sends their sons to school, but he is anti-authoritarian. Orwell loves the idea of equality but is sentimental and nostalgic about the class system in England. He was a socialist who was an anti-communist and anti-fascist.  He was anti-war but pro the Second World War.

There seems to be a disconnect between the man of Eric Blair and the writer George Orwell. Orwell is a brilliant writer.

Book Review: “A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood

Intro

This book is different. Bear with me. I promise it’s worth it.

Muna and I seem to do a lot of driving. In California last winter we spent two to three hours a day driving to see things. Audiobooks are a great way to catch up on your reading.  We picked up an audiobook called “A Single Man” at a book sale in Paso Robles, CA.  It was a pleasant surprise.

A Single Man

The book is about a gay man having a midlife crisis after his longtime partner suddenly dies. I am not usually into books about gay middle-aged men, but I love books by amazing writers. Christopher Isherwood is definitely a great writer.

Background of the Author

Christopher Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904, on his family’s estate in Cheshire, England, near Manchester. Isherwood’s father was a professional soldier from a landed gentry family. His mother came from a wealthy merchant family.

Isherwood boyhood was an environment very similar to “Downton Abbey.” As an upper-middle-class boy, he had an idyllic childhood. His father was killed in World War I.

Isherwood knew early on he was gay. This theme is present in all his writing. Isherwood attended Repton School in Derbyshire. Later he went to Cambridge University but left without a degree.

In 1929, he moved to Berlin, the capital of the Weimer Republic. He was drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom. He met a man named Heinz, who became his first great love. He wrote novels based on his own life.

Isherwood moved to America in 1939 and settled in Los Angles. He reinvented himself in Los Angeles. He openly lived as a gay man long before it was fashionable.

In 1939, Isherwood wrote “Goodbye to Berlin” a semi-autobiographical novel set in Weimar Germany. Isherwood talks about pre-Nazi Germany and the rise of Hitler. Famous writer George Orwell called it, “Brilliant sketches of a society in decay.”

The book was adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical Cabaret (1966) and the film Cabaret (1972). Liza Minnelli won an Academy Award for playing Sally in the movie.

On Valentine’s Day 1953, Isherwood met Don Bachardy. Isherwood was 48 and Barchardy was 18. The 30-year age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy raised some eyebrows. Over time they became a well-known and a much-photographed couple. They lived together the rest of Isherwood’s life. Isherwood died at 81 in 1986 in Santa Monica, California.

Summary

George Falconer is a 58-year-old expat Englishman living in Southern California. George is a literature professor. The book is set in 1962, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  George’s longtime partner Jim suddenly died a few weeks before in a car accident.

George and Jim were together for over sixteen years. Jim was George’s life. Jim’s death has shattered George’s reality and sense of self. During an ordinary day (his last day), George is haunted by memories.  He seeks connections with the world around him. He interacts with neighbors, students and old friends.

Throughout the day, he has various encounters with different people. His contacts with these people color his senses and illuminate the idea of being alive and human in the world. During the day George undergoes experiences that separates his thoughts from his body. While driving to his university, his thoughts wander back to his life with Jim. We learn how they met and lived together. Through dialogue, flashbacks of memory and George’s internal monologue we see the lonely, bereaved nature his life has become without Jim.

Analysis

The novel is loosely based on Isherwood’s own life teaching at California State University, Los Angeles. Many consider “A Single Man” to be his best work.

“A Single Man” is a moving portrait of a man struggling to find himself in midlife. The narrative is edgy, controlled and subtle with moments of buried rage. Isherwood paints a beautiful picture with words of George’s everyday life on a multicultural, multiethnic campus. Throughout the day (his last day), George tries to stave off his loneliness. He visits an old English friend, he goes to a bar, and he frolics with a student in the ocean.

Everything is about George trying to connect with someone, anyone before it’s too late. The book is a study of grief and a portrait of the aftermath of a lost love. George being gay is only an afterthought. George is a man deeply mourning someone he loved. He is a man who has lost his rudder in life.

Isherwood the Writer

Isherwood is a brilliant novelist. His style of writing gets you into the headspace of George. We find out what makes him tick, how he feels and why he is so sad. Isherwood was a prolific writer. He was a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, biographer, and diarist. He is fun to read, “The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops.  Not because it is heroic.  It can imagine no alternative.

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face – the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man – all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead.  Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us – we have died – what is there to be afraid of?”

Gore Vidal said, “Isherwood is the best prose writer in English.” Vidal may be right. I know I loved the book. “A Single Man” is different, brilliant, and sad.

His excellent book is hysterical and deeply moving. He gives us insight into the human mind. Isherwood is an expert on prose. Not a word is wasted.  A lot is crammed into this little book. The 2009 movie stars Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. Firth gives a brilliant performance as George.

Book Review: Fortunate Son by Lewis B. Puller Jr.

Intro

I am trying to get caught up on the Boon Reviews. I love reading a good book and then writing about it. Lewis B. Puller’s 1991 book “Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Source: www.amazon.com

This book hit close to home. I know what’s like to go to the war the son of a military legend. I know what’s like to be wounded and to suffer through years of rehabilitation, depression and attempt to live up to a father’s one-sided legacy.

My own story is nothing compared to Lewis B. Puller Jr.’s. My writing is not as beautiful. This is a brilliant, painful and necessary book. Like Eugene Sledge’s book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa,” Puller is a proud veteran of the 1st Marine Division. Like Sledge, Puller deals with his demons through writing. The outcome of Puller’s story is heroic and tragic.

The story of this brave Marine made me proud and broke my heart. His journey is one of the best I’ve read about the nightmare that was Vietnam.  Muna and I listened to this book on audio. Puller narrated the book. He is a measured and intense narrator. The last ten seconds of the book made us both cry. You’ll find out why later.

Biography

Lewis B. Puller Jr. was born in Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1945. Puller was the son of Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine of all time.

Puller served in Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Rifle Platoon Commander. His awards were the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry for his service.

Puller graduated in 1967 from the College of William and Mary, where he also earned a law degree. In 1978, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress.  In 1979, Mr. Puller worked as a senior lawyer in the Defense Department. He died in 1994.

Summary

Puller’s autobiography recounts his tragic life, a Marine who lost both of his legs and part of both hands while serving his country in Vietnam.

Lewis B. Puller was the son of Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history. Puller recounts from the time he was a boy there were unspoken assumptions about the course his life should take.

Puller felt a certain obligation to be a Marine because he was Chesty’s only son and heir to the Puller name. Puller joins the Marine Corps while still in college. Puller meets a beautiful woman named Toddy.

Puller becomes a Marine Officer. Just before going to Vietnam he finds out that Toddy is pregnant. They get married just before Puller leaves. Puller goes to Vietnam as an Infantry Platoon Commander. Within three months he returns home to the States missing two legs and most of his hands.

In the book, he told of stepping on a booby-trapped howitzer round while he was in Vietnam. “I felt as if I had been airborne forever,” he wrote. “I had no idea that the pink mist that engulfed me had been caused by the vaporization of most of my right and left legs.” Wounds That Never Healed.

His body was mangled. Puller was in endless agony during his painful physical recovery followed by years of surgery and rehabilitation.  His wife stays by his side through it all. His son is born while he is the hospital.

Puller fights to regain a purpose to his life. Puller nearly succumbed to relentless pain, depression, alcoholism and a father’s unrequited legacy. Against all the odds, he survives his wounds and goes on to earn a law degree from the prestigious William and Mary College.

Puller feels bitter about how America treats Vietnam warriors, veterans of an unpopular and “lost” war. He runs for Congress and loses. To his disgust, he loses to a man who was elected on the strength of his pro-military stance, even though he avoided service in Vietnam.

Puller helped to organize and build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982.  Puller’s amazing book is an account of his journey from alienation to reconciliation with a nation that had sent him to war.

Analysis

Even the cover demands your attention and respect. On the front of the book is the image of Puller’s shrunken body perched on a wheelchair in front of the Vietnam War Memorial. The book is beautiful, haunting and tragic.

Lewis B. Puller is a fantastic writer. He is intelligent and caring. He writes with a clarity and accuracy that makes reading about difficult subjects (war, trauma, and suffering) easier to absorb.

His prose at the sentence level is devastating and haunting:

“I listened in on my father’s conversations with his colleagues and acquaintances while I was growing up, and I unconsciously adopted his politics and philosophy as my own. Most of the admirers who came to share his wisdom were already predisposed to accept his words as gospel; Father’s personality was so strong and his delivery so forceful that I saw very few people who ever seemed to express disagreement with his stands on issues.”

Puller sees his emotional wounds and the country’s emotional wounds over Vietnam in a larger context in the book. His father’s long heroic shadow haunts him throughout his life.  Puller gives an open and graphic description of his pain and trauma after Vietnam. He talks about his pain-filled struggles with alcohol and drug addiction.

In the war, Puller lost his legs, most of his hands and some of his self-respect. He felt he lost his future, half of his body and dreams to a war that his fellow Americans thought was a mistake. Vietnam destroyed his life.

Puller paid a high-price to make his father proud. Puller admired and loved his father deeply. Puller felt he made an honorable sacrifice for an uncaring country that treated its Vietnam veterans like dirt.

His grisly physical and traumatic emotional injuries were almost too big for any one man to overcome, but overcome them he did. Puller graduated from law school, was married to an amazing women with two wonderful kids, and ran for public office. Puller helped to organize the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

His book is a chronicle of a man who needed to be a kind of different hero, one who overcame his enormous physical and psychological scars to find a courage- and a victory- all his own.

Final Statement

On May 11, 1994, Lewis Puller Jr’s victory in his ongoing battle ended, when he took his own life. His death may be another casualty of the Vietnam War due to his long-suffering from his wounds.

This last part of the book devastated me. After hours of wonderful listening to Puller tell his heroic tale, another narrator cuts in and tells us how he died. I learned a lot from this book.

His wife Toddy Puller said in a statement: “To the list of names of victims of the Vietnam War, add the name of Lewis Puller. He suffered terrible wounds that never really healed.” His death could serve as reminder and obituary for the war itself.