Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

Spoiler-free zone.

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Before dusting this book off my shelf, the only dystopian novels I’d read were Fahrenheit 451  by Ray Bradbury and the YA trilogy, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, both of which I’d enjoyed thoroughly. Though they’re both thought-provoking and impactful in their own ways, nothing compares to the chilling power that is 1984. 

If you’ve ever heard the terms Big Brother, Double Think, Newspeak… these were all coined from this haunting dystopian novel written in 1949.

This book wasn’t meant to be a prophecy of the then near-future, but a warning on how our world could — or would — transform if we continue on our path of destruction and lose our humanity. If the world ceases to be a place of thought and wonder and imagination, and sinks into a dark realm in which freedom is no longer a concept understood by the masses, let alone a word in the dictionary.

And it makes sense that Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair (George Orwell was a pen name), would write such a book. Not only was he a political essayist and novelist living during a war-torn era, he despised totalitarianism, which makes 1984 then a hyperbole of government domination. The heavy, dark tone of the book was most likely a reflection of attitudes and moods after World War II.

“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same — everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same — people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” George Orwell, 1984

This is a book that creeps up on you. It starts at the micro level and widens with each chapter, before jolting you into a wave of emotion. Orwell takes his time setting up the stage, intimately introducing us to his protagonist, Winston Smith, and the world in which he… exists.

I was disturbed, yet very much intrigued, by the eerie world that Orwell gradually reveals. From the very first line it’s clear that the world of the book is unlike ours (a great thing to note for writers; crafting time and place is not always easy). The details of Orwell’s world in the year 1984 dance right out of the page.

Orwell covers the type of food and drink that’s consumed, the clothing, the living quarters, the buildings, the streets, the expressions or lack-thereof on people’s faces, people’s mannerisms and moods, the lyrics of songs that are sung, even the language that’s used, and its direct translations. Leaving barely any specifics to the imagination, his precision serves a very keen purpose.

Towards the end I felt like I had been immersed in a nightmare, and that’s exactly what 1984 sets out to portray.

The third-person narrative follows the story of middle-aged Winston Smith. We learn about Orwell’s vision of 1984 through Smith’s eyes and internal monologues. He is our guide through this unfamiliar world that ends up resembling certain aspects of our current day: the feeling of being constantly watched, monitored, and contained — the struggle between wanting to fit in and wanting to be free from that pressure. (And indeed with each year that goes by, 1984 becomes more and more relevant.)

Orwell’s precise prose make Winston’s desires our own; his fear, distrust, and desperation we come to understand as though we were born in his world. As a writer, I appreciated this accomplishment because it’s so hard to create the circumstances by which your reader can completely understand the high stakes of a world they’ve never experienced. This begs for the book to be read again as a writer.

One of my favorite aspects of 1984 is that it tackles the essence of Truth. Orwell challenges us to question what Truth is — if it’s a figment of our own making that can be altered and erased, or an eternally rooted reality. He makes you think about how society may be brainwashing you, or striving to mold you, your thoughts and ideals, in ways you were previously unaware, simply because you perceive what’s around you as the norm. You are made to question the norm and your role in perpetuating certain perceptions.

As applied to our world today, this case in Saudi Arabia where a blogger was prosecuted for speaking his mind, for speaking out against what is deemed as definitive truth in that society, came to mind. This article too made me think about some of the concepts that Orwell dissects in his book.

“It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you — something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses.” George Orwell, 1984

1984 is a struggle between the individual and the larger entity that is government and society. It’s about power, oppression, and control — and the role technology can play in all of these. It challenges us to think about what makes us human, what can happen if we don’t live our lives, and rule our world, in accordance with those values. And it presents to us two important questions:

Can human beings lose their humanity to the point of no return?

Can we handle the enormous responsibility that comes from achieving great power, without shattering the moral compass?

In short, this is a book that stays with you. You begin to find traces of its allusions all around as you go about your day. It’s a book you could read over and over and discover new meanings and symbols each time… no wonder its significance has endured throughout the decades.

So if you’re in the mood for a fun, light read, I’d encourage you to look elsewhere. But if you’re interested in a psychological horror story, one that will analyze human thought, society, and behavior, that will nudge you into asking philosophical questions about man’s innate nature and the structure of our world, then this book will take you on a memorable ride. One that will inevitably tilt the lens through which you view the world, if only slightly.

Have you read 1984?

Review: ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

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This book has been on my shelf for years. I’d never known what it was about, but I knew it was the only novel written by famed poet Sylvia Plath, therefore I knew I had to read it. I’m a fan of Plath’s poetry, though you don’t have to be to enjoy this book (I use the word enjoy lightly).

This book is in one word insightful. Sharp, personal, and emotionally charged— her poetry leaves an impression on you in its willingness to be vulnerable, and this book is no different. If you’re familiar with Plath, you know that her poetry strikes a raw chord because she wrote from a deep and painful place in the heart and mind. She suffered from depression for many years before ending her life at the age of 30, leaving two children, a boy and a girl, behind.

Though a work of fiction, The Bell Jar, like Plath’s poetry, is considered autobiographical because of its deeply personal perspective on life behind the veil of depression. The central themes in the novel, I found out later, parallel those in Plath’s early life. In fact, she is said to have referred to The Bell Jar as “an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.” As a writer, I truly connect with the desire to purge your pain through writing, or at least, to seek to understand it.

But The Bell Jar is not outward with its purpose. It doesn’t come out and say, hey, this is what depression is about! This is what it feels like! Nor is this book explicitly about Plath herself. It doesn’t seek pity. It does, however, whether you’ve suffered from depression or not, challenge you. It most certainly makes you question— whether it’s Esther, the protagonist, her reasons for doing, thinking, and saying the things that she does— or yourself, and your own deepest, darkest human moments.

The first-person narrative, brutally honest and morbidly critical, grips you immediately. And I could see as I read why 19 year-old Esther Greenwood has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye’s 16 year-old Holden Caulfield. I won’t go into an in-depth comparison, but I will say that like Holden, Esther is not immediately likable. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her and her seemingly judgmental observations at first. She raised my eyebrow many times, especially in the beginning as I was just getting to know her, and only until I read further did I realize that her perspective was muddied by something else…

“A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

This book is about perception. About disconnectedness and alienation, with very subtle threads of hope. The tone is never melodramatic; poignant in its straight-forwardness, in its matter-of-fact attitude towards death, it drips with despair but not obviously. Written by a poet, the prose is unsurprisingly fluid and the figurative language is wonderful and plenty. Plath was a word smith indeed. The way she so easily weaved tender and difficult emotions into a needle’s eye was a pleasure to study!

The Bell Jar is a vivid, intelligent, and disturbing portrait of a determined, witty young woman whose perception of herself and the world around her is blurred by something she can’t quite place. It gives voice to an uncomfortable subject, a human experience that, especially at the time of its publication in 1963, was not widely and openly talked about— let alone from a woman’s perspective.

In fact, Plath didn’t want the novel published in the U.S. for fear that it would cause pain to those close to her (many of the characters were apparently inspired by people in her own life). So it was published first in London (where she lived at the time) under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and not released in the U.S. until 1972.

I think Plath intrigues us because she was a mind too heavy for herself, too deep for her own good. And the Why in her life’s off-course, tragic end, and the bleeding words she left behind, haunt us.

In a way, this book— a fleeting peek into a mind off kilter — sheds some light, though it doesn’t promise to answer any questions. What it does do, however, just as it did when it was first published, is spark conversation and foster awareness around mental health.

Have you read The Bell Jar?

Review: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Spoiler-free zone.

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I’ve been wanting to read Oscar Wilde for some time, and though he’s mostly famous for his plays, I chose to start with his only novel, published in 1891. The premise of The Picture of Dorian Gray intrigued me, especially because its Victorian audience had deemed it immoral, criticizing its decadence and allusions. It didn’t take much to offend such an audience, mind you; the Victorian era was proper in every sense of the word—concerned with ranks and high morals, and above all else, appearances.

This is a story about obsession, orchestrated by art, pleasures, and vanity. Wilde explores society’s obsession with beauty and eternal youth, exposing the ugliness that sprouts within when one is poisoned by ego and influence. A cautionary tale of sorts, it condemns those who over-think and inject meaning into things that just are—as Wilde was a big proponent of the aestheticism movement. The purpose of art is called to question and serves as the book’s main theme.

(I find it ironic that through a work of art—this book—Wilde sought to prove his philosophy that art’s only real purpose is to be beautiful. And even more ironic is that Wilde fell from his post as celebrated writer and playwright—convicted of acts of indecency— not long after this book was published… but I digress.)

“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a Gothic, psychological thriller set in Victorian London. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?! The grand aristocratic homes, the dimly lit streets peppered with horse carriages, the rain trickling down windows as dinners are enjoyed indoors… all these elements paint the novel’s setting, and Wilde is careful with his details, focusing on the psychological state of the main character, Dorian Gray.

Although the action builds rather slowly, the third-person narrative (sometimes interrupted by the author speaking directly to us) drives the book with full force, culminating with a bold and powerful climax that I must admit, I didn’t see coming.

The pages are filled with rich philosophical debates and witty dialogue, but the moral decline of Dorian Gray, who I only sometimes pitied, remains the central focus, with each exchange and internal monologue reflecting his impressionable character. The story begins with his being a “beautiful”, innocent, oblivious young man, untainted by cynicism. Indeed, ignorance is truly bliss for Dorian Gray in the beginning. Living life in carefree luxury (with way too much time on his hands!), his growing ambitions, vanity, and curiosities gradually tumble him into “grayness” and misery, and I found it interesting that his name is always used in full throughout the book—rarely if ever is he referred to as simply Dorian, or Gray, perhaps to emphasize that his entire being is corrupt, not just his actions.

There were times I did chuckle at the dramatic undertones, especially in relation to the way the characters spoke, but their word choices and phrases only emphasized the time and place of the novel, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

As a writer, one thing I appreciated about this book was the minimal number of characters. I admired how Wilde used each supporting character very specifically to aid in Dorian Gray’s trajectory, thus plunging us head-first into the inner turmoil of his desperate protagonist. It was fun to observe because it reminded me that novels needn’t have numerous characters with long story-lines in order to be interesting, poignant, or complex. (Thanks, Mr. Wilde!) 

And the ending to me was perfect… a true, natural conclusion very much in line with the ominous tone that carries the book, so that we’re finally left with a clear “picture” of Dorian Gray.

So if you’re in the mood for a quick-read classic, pick up this book and indulge yourself. 😉 Or have you read it already? What did you think?

Review: ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini

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I finished this book three days ago, yet I still find my mind wandering over hills and streets in Afghanistan that I have never seen with my eyes.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a gripping tale of female heroism set against the backdrop of war-stricken, Taliban-ruling Afghanistan. It is a tale that brings to light the grimy details of war and female oppression, but most importantly, one that illuminates the strength and endurance of the human spirit.

Hosseini seamlessly weaves together the first-person narratives of two female characters, Mariam and Laila, whose lives inadvertently intersect in a world that seeks to divide. They form a bond, this unlikely pair, as strong as mother and daughter, one that is underlined by relentless fear and abuse.

As a woman, I couldn’t help but reflect on the phrase… It’s a man’s world. The sufferings of Mariam and Laila swelled that phrase into a whole new meaning for me, transforming it into a real face with very ugly features. This book may be a work of fiction, but the injustices faced by women in Afghanistan and many other places around the globe—in our modern era—are anything but.

The narrative moves quickly with its fluid, straight-to-the-point prose and a pace that never misses a beat. The details Hosseini provides are carefully selected, never overly descriptive or sympathetic, transporting us to an unfamiliar world that ends up feeling rather familiar. In the end, when the stage is stripped away and all the costumes are hung up, we find that no matter where our place in the world, pain is pain, need is need, and love is love.

With this book, Hosseini has painted a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of life behind an Afghani woman’s burqa veil, all within the intriguing context of Afghanistan’s turbulent history, changing seasons, and various landscapes. This is not a simple tale of hardship and triumph. It is one of love, endurance, hope, and forgiveness. In Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, the power of love in an anguished world truly shines.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear what you think!