The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey

This funny, wise, well-researched study sits at the intersection of biography of Orwell’s life, literary criticism of 1984 and social commentary on literature’s role in life.

Dorian Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) takes a close look at an ubiquitous classic with The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel was a sensation and a controversy when it was published in 1949; again as the year 1984 approached and passed; again in recent years, and at every time in between. Lynskey sets out to examine its ancestry in utopian and dystopian literatures, in Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and wartime Great Britain, and the political and cultural responses it’s drawn.

Lynskey spends much time contextualizing outside material: he devotes whole chapters to the literary works of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, his relationships with other writers and his personal and professional history necessarily figure as background material in Part One of The Ministry of Truth.

Part Two covers the world’s reaction to 1984, all the way through the election of the Unites States’ 45th president. In 1984, the novel surfaced not only in documentaries and articles, but also in a comedy sketch by Steve Martin and Jeff Goldblum, in carpet advertisements, on Cheers and in Charlie Brown–Lynskey writes that it “had mutated from a novel into a meme.” He refers to Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Postman and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. He covers some of the books’ various interpretations: Atwood features as the “most prominent advocate” of the Appendix Theory, which asserts that 1984‘s Appendix, covering Newspeak from a date apparently far beyond 1984, “is a text within the world of the novel, with an unidentified author,” thereby offering a decisive reading.

This wide-ranging and thorough study requires a careful and patient reader. Even one familiar with both Orwell’s work and early communist and socialist histories will need to read closely. Lynskey offers his own appendix: a chapter-by-chapter précis of 1984, which is recommended for everyone. The requisite attention will be well rewarded, as The Ministry of Truth is not only enthralling and research-rich, but often laugh-out-loud funny. When 1984‘s American publishers wrote to J. Edgar Hoover hoping for a back-cover endorsement, Lynskey writes, “Hoover declined the request and instead opened a file on Orwell.” Lynskey’s voice is impassioned and self-aware, and he has an eye for the absurd (as any student of Orwell’s should).

Among Lynskey’s conclusions is that 1984 is “a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” Too often it has been mistaken for a prophecy (and critics then argue about how successful it has been in that regard), rather than understood as Orwell intended: to offer a possible future as motivation to work against that possibility. Lynskey argues that such persistent and diverse misreadings are possible because the novel leaves room to become essentially whatever the reader wants it to be, or most fears. This is part of why 1984 remains as forceful and compelling as ever. The Ministry of Truth is a necessary guide.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lies.

Lanny by Max Porter

This novel about family, the power of the woods and the creative spirit, centered on a special young boy, will charm any reader.

Following his decorated first novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter again takes his reader into a weird and magical world with Lanny. Similarly short, lyric and mysterious, this touching story is partner but not sequel.

Lanny’s mum and dad have moved to a village not far from London, “fewer than fifty redbrick cottages, a pub, a church.” Lanny’s dad commutes into the city while his mum works on writing her murder thriller. Lanny goes to school and plays in the woods, singing, fairy-like and joyful; he is “young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key,” “stinking of pine trees and other nice things.” He “says strange and wonderful things, mumblings, puzzling things for a child to say.” There is also an old man in the village named Pete, an artist who works with natural materials and was once famous in London. He describes himself as a “miserable solitary bastard” but is actually caring and sensitive; he becomes the closest friend Lanny’s family has in town.

And then there is Dead Papa Toothwort, a legend and an enigma, tied up in trees and leaves and related to the green men carved in old churches in this part of the world. When the book opens, he is waking “from his standing nap an acre wide.” As a force, it is unclear whether Dead Papa Toothwort is good or evil; he is associated with death as well as seasonal renewal. “He wants to kill things, so he sings… his grin takes a sticky hour.” “He loves it when a lamb gets stuck being born.” And he is obsessed with Lanny.

The whole village, in a way, revolves around Lanny–especially after misfortune strikes. His dad feels overwhelmed by his son’s specialness (“What or who is supposed to manage and regulate Lanny and his gifts? Oh f*ck, it’s us”); his needs are simpler, related to work, food and sex. The boy’s mum is closer to Lanny’s dreamworld, “the type of person who is that little bit more akin to the weather than most.” After agreeing to give him art lessons, Pete finds a surprising new friend in the young boy. The rest of the human population follows this preoccupation–and always there is Dead Papa Toothwort, listening.

What begins as a sweet revolution of three adult lives (mum, dad, Pete) around the boy turns sinister in the novel’s second of three parts; resolution comes in the third. Often a stream-of-consciousness style leaves the reader a bit off-kilter, but this is suited to Lanny’s dreamlike setting: trust in the story will be rewarded. Porter’s prose is undeniably gorgeous. “Mile-wide slabs of rain romp across the valley… palette-knife smears of bad weather rush past.” These elements in combination are every bit as imaginative, compelling and magical as Lanny himself.


This review originally ran in the April 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mutterings.

movie: Anita (2014)

At my father’s encouragement, I spent several nights in the van watching this documentary in small pieces, as wifi connections and laptop batteries permitted. This was the right way to watch it for me, anyway, because I continue to find this difficult content. Like so many millions of women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give testimony against a man who is now a Supreme Court justice, just last year. I have a hard time watching Dr. Anita Hill do the same. I have a hard time with the continuity of this story.

I’ve written about Anita’s story before, when watching Confirmation and reading Speaking Truth to Power (in two parts). Looking back at those reviews, I guess I’m feeling the way I did with that first of two book reviews: discouraged, traumatized. Of course, looking back at the email in which my father recommended I watch this, I see he saw this coming: “You could skip roughly the first half of the 77-minute film – it recounts the hearings with too many excerpts for us who have seen too much of it already.” Strangely, I guess that’s me, even though I didn’t watch the hearings in 1991.

For my father, the point of the film was was redemptive. (He saw it at a local documentary festival event.)

Once it shifts to Hill’s update on her aftermath, it becomes uplifting and fulfilling as it recounts the huge community of support that has buoyed her life, and catalyzed social change (such as it is). (I did not know anything about her move to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has clearly blossomed as activist & educator.) By the end, there is emphasis on younger generations of women in particular.

The years since 2013 have not been as good, and the audience discussion with (filmmaker) Mock and two local women attorneys (one from local Western Washington University) was attentive to that and the Kavanaugh hearings. But I found the film personally necessary, because it counters the sad-end-narrative for Hill herself, which I had stuck in my head after her book, the recent reenactment film, and Kavanaugh. I’m sure Hill was knocked askew by Kavanaugh too, but now I know what a strong place she was in when that debacle arrived, and trust she is weathering it along with us all.

And those points are well taken, although I guess I needed reminding of that. I viewed the film’s final minutes – that spotlighting of the inspiring younger women saddling up – as positive but also disheartening again, especially because I watch this in 2019 and know what these young women, filmed in 2011-12, don’t know about the immediate future. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to stay positive in the face of this ongoing story, but I don’t argue that that’s the right perspective. Hope is better. I’m trying.

To Anita Hill, for the 500th time, I take my hat off and thank you. As far as this film, I think Pops has it right: the footage from the hearings is essential stuff, but if you’re already well-versed, there’s nothing especially new there (and it’s hard to see them press her about pubic hairs and big-breasted women over and over again. Not as hard as it was for her to be pressed, though). The later stuff in the movie is new, even for those of us who have already worked through Hill’s excellent memoir and the very good movie Confirmation. And Pops is correct, it’s good to see how well she’s doing, and that’s she still doing the work.

The story is essential. Pick your version, for starters. You would not do badly if you chose to start here.


Rating: 7 times they made her repeat herself.

guest review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean, from Pops

Recommended for me from my father, with this nice write-up.

If you know a librarian, or you appreciate libraries, or you love books, this is a book for you; that’s what the title is telling us. There are thousands of books touching on this subject; Susan Orlean provides a compelling and approachable addition with this one.

In 31 short or long chapters, Orlean ranges widely with library history and librarian profiles; library trivia and book burning history; eccentric characters and stories stranger than fiction; and more, thus satisfying many interests without attempting to be an ‘all about…’ tome.

While this approach may still occasionally have the interest of a particular reader momentarily flagging, it would be only brief. The narrative thread woven throughout describes the Los Angeles Public Library; the disastrous Central Library fire of 1986; the mystery of its cause; and the many colorful, intertwining characters.

Along the way, we learn of libraries’ triumph over the ‘tech revolution’; the magical mix of personalities that make librarians and staff special, and the fire’s traumatic impact on them; the amazing and broadening social role of libraries, globally; historical library anecdotes spanning three centuries; L.A. Central Library architecture and rebuilding; book restoration; Fahrenheit 451 (and its author); the disturbing flaws in arson investigation; how AIDS touches this narrative; and more.

We get glimpses of the influential 1960s and 1970s through a library filter. And in brief interludes spend a ‘day in the life’ of the Children’s section, or the Music section, or the ‘InfoNow department.’ We peer into the possible future of libraries, and are reassured.

Yet this is also an openly personal story of a seasoned journalist seeking answers to mysteries – both public and private – while allowing her inner-researcher’s curiosity to wander down various rabbit trails that appear unexpectedly. This book, as with many, in part wrote itself. A veteran author, resolved to never again invest her life in creating a book, is compelled to write.

Her first-person voice is often present in describing interviews or other source material, but never distracts. While lending her journalist’s keen eye to details, she attempts little objective critique; she is a library booster.

We learn of her personal commitment to the subject in only a few brief episodes, doled out modestly, where endearing prose explains her devotion to the book’s purpose. Her library passion is rooted in early life experience nurtured by her mother; this becomes a touchstone rediscovered late in life, passed on to her son and brought to fruition in these pages. The book’s final two pages are lovely conclusion, returning to this personal story.


Postscript: an essay about a book about books, and about books from libraries, would be remiss without mentioning the physical book. This first-edition library binding is a bright orange, without jacket; the front and back cover text is imprinted into the nicely textured cover material. The orange leaps out boldly on the bookshelf. The front is bold text in bright shiny yellow, like polished gold against the orange. The back includes the usual blurbs (notably Erik Larson, among others) in white and yellow text.

Inside, both sides of the front endpaper display the summary typically appearing on a book jacket, here with a traditional-looking design.

The endpaper flyleaf has the usual author photo and brief bio; but the endpaper itself is special: an image of an old yellowed library lending-card sleeve, with a lending card that becomes personal dedication, connected to her personal story. The card shows four handwritten entries, for: Ray Bradbury, Orlean’s mother, Orlean herself, and her son. The image is so lifelike that a reader instinctively reaches to pull the card. I have tested this on others old enough to know; one cannot resist.

The volume is attractive to the eye and hand, with a pleasant heft. It’s a nice book; check it out from your local library!

That yellowed library card is a design feature in several places these days; lovely!

Thanks for sharing.

How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea by Jonathan Gornall

A father ill-suited to DIY projects builds a boat for his daughter, and in the process writes a charming, heartfelt love letter to both boat and child.

Jonathan Gornall has been boat- and water-obsessed for many decades, but he is the first to admit that, as a longtime chair-bound freelance journalist, his DIY skills are nil. The idea of him building anything from scratch is unlikely. But Gornall is also giddy with joy at becoming a father again at age 58. As he seeks a project sufficient to show his new daughter his love and hope for her life, the idea feels natural, even obvious: he will build her a boat.

How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea is a love letter to that small child, Phoebe. It is a memoir of a life on and off of water and a study of the history, art and science of boatbuilding. Gornall is determined not only to build a seaworthy craft by hand and from scratch, he also feels that it must be clinker-built, the traditional type of planked wooden boat favored by the Vikings and early Anglo-Saxons, dating to the second century. Of course, he acknowledges, there is “no boatbuilding technique so respectably ancient, so historically resonant, so seductively beautiful, and so bloody difficult.” With his wife’s cautious support, Gornall sets himself a deadline: he will build Phoebe a boat within a year.

The pages of this book span slightly more than that year, following Gornall’s inspiration for his project through its conclusion, as well as revisiting the life that has led to this point. He considers his first sea voyage (in utero, with an unwed mother who consistently claims he’s ruined her life), his first experiences with boats (at boarding school) and his significant time on the ocean. Gornall has twice attempted to row across the Atlantic, with enormous press and personal pressure, and twice failed: these disappointments weigh heavily on the older man’s mind and contribute to the urgency to get this boating effort right. Along the way, he consults local boatbuilding experts in the historic tradition, as well as books in the canon: four authors he calls his League of Dead Experts.

Gornall’s tone is drily funny and always self-deprecating when it comes to the project at hand. His research, however, is as serious as his journalistic background would suggest. The writer’s love for style is evident: each chapter is headed by an epigraph, equally likely to come from one of the Dead Experts or from The Wind in the Willows or Winnie-the-Pooh. The result is a deeply moving intersection of the personal–Gornall’s absolute devotion to his daughter–with the practical. This is not quite a how-to manual, but readers with aspirations to fashion their own clinker-built boat would have a headstart upon reading. By the end, this self-described “soft-handed, deskbound modern man with few tools, limited practical abilities, and an ignominious record of DIY disaster” has achieved something truly remarkable, and possibly moved his reader to tears. If the boat is a gift to Phoebe, this book is another.


This review originally ran in the April 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 saws.

Fulton Theatre presents Next to Normal (2019)

I feel so glad and so lucky that I found a charming little theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and this play to attend. It was a phenomenal performance and experience all around. This is the best part of traveling: finding gems like this.

First of all, the space and background: let me set the stage, if you will. The Fulton Theatre is a grand, historic old opera house, of a certain type. The main theatre space is opulent, extravagant: ornate carvings, gilt, red velvet. My date and I snuck in to see this space after our play was over; but Next to Normal was performed upstairs, in the “studio.” It reminded me very much of the iDiOm/Sylvia, with spare furnishings and rows of chairs set up on the floor for the audience. I was a little disappointed not to see the big grand theatre in action, of course, but I admit seeing this smaller, simpler space was a comfort, because it reminded me of another theatre I’ve really appreciated (I’m still remembering Clown Bar fondly).

the lovely Fulton Opera House (photo credit)

So, a small space, unassuming, and with moderately minimal props and backdrop, and a small cast of just six. I have seen a larger cast play in small space – Clown Bar was one of those exceptions – but generally a smaller space does mean fewer players. They did indulge in costume changes, though.

Now on to the play, itself.

Next to Normal was written by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), and I appreciate it very much as a play, to begin with. The topics it deals with are not small undertakings. Family dysfunction and severe mental illness are difficult to approach in any art form, I think. Here we have a mother, Diane, who is ill – how ill becomes gradually clear, but she clearly struggles to get out of bed and deal with her daily life within the home, let alone outside it. Her husband, Dan, means well, but he’s ill-equipped to help his wife with her outsized problems. There are two children who are affected in different ways. And there’s a big reveal part-way through, which I won’t spoil for you here, but it’s important.

Did I mention yet that this play was a musical? A rock musical, that is. It sounded weird coming in (doesn’t it sound weird?) – a rock musical about mental illness and family dysfunction.

The high-school-aged daughter gets her first boyfriend, and Diane has a psychiatrist, and then another (both played by the same actor); and that’s the whole cast: mom, dad, two kids, boyfriend, psych. In two acts, Diane gets sicker. She is prescribed lots of drugs; she experiences hallucinations; she attempts to kill herself; she is hospitalized, and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The nuclear family learns some things about themselves individually, about each other, and about how they work together. The ending is surprisingly hopeful, but feels earned.

My one real concern that I want to voice is something that often concerns me in conversations about mental illness. There seem to be two well-intentioned stories we tell ourselves/each other: that it’s okay to take drugs, to get the help one needs; and that one is stronger if one can be okay without drugs. I think it’s tricky to navigate these two messages, either one of which can be potentially damaging. On the one hand, there’s an argument that we’re too pill-happy in this culture, and that we start our kids on drugs too young. On the other hand, the feeling that you’re stronger if you can “do it” without drugs is really problematic for those people who suffer from conditions that require medication, as some do. The narrative of this play came down a little bit on the side of praising and admiring the drug-free path. And if that works for the fictional Diane, of course I am so happy for her. But that kind of praise can be discouraging, even damaging, for patients who need drugs to be okay. I just wanted to voice that because it occurred to me as I watched the play unfold. And as I’m writing this, I guess I need to observe how personal this material felt. Without violating anyone’s privacy, I thought of some loved ones who have struggled or are currently struggling in ways I recognized here. It was sobering and hard to watch, of course, but it also felt good to have certain people seen. Art is powerful. I’m glad that art addresses such topics as these – even the really hard ones – because the hardest parts of life deserve to have this light shined upon them.

Also, can we talk about the extraordinary image, above? Click through to the larger version. That woman with her blurred-out face, the suburban ideal in her torso, and the pills spilling out from her lower extremities. The sense of time passing all around her. That’s an ideal of accompanying art.

Even with this serious and disturbing material, Next to Normal is remarkably also very funny, and so heartwarming, even through the challenges. And played by such gifted actors – I could feel their passion and power. I paused to admire, at intermission, how odd it is that I can be simultaneously aware that this is “just” a play, and also so invested in these characters who are fiction, and I know that, and yet they make me laugh and cry, and I just want for Diane to be okay and for her daughter Natalie to feel loved and to know it’s okay, she doesn’t have to be perfect to make up for everything… I want Dan to know it’s not his job to fix his wife. Gosh, but I love the theatre.

The thing that was most surprising and impressive about this play I’ve saved for last. Listen to this: the actor who played Dan was unavailable at the last minute, and so they called upon an actor with twenty-four hours’ notice to step in. Jeffrey Coon did not have time to learn his lines; he played the role with a bound script in one hand, flipping through its pages as he went. But he knew the scenes! And he knew the music! He played the physical role perfectly, including interactions with other actors; he knew his blocking. And recall this is a musical: when he glanced down at that playbook for his lines, he was often not speaking but singing them. He knew the songs, musically, just needed the words as he went. Because Dan is some kind of businessman, often carrying a briefcase, he was able to make that bound script often serve as a prop, so that it sometimes disappeared and we could forget about it altogether. I have NEVER seen this before. And I cannot imagine it’s ever done this well: Coon’s acting as Dan was superb, spot-on emotionally and in key with his fellow players. His singing was impressive – great voice, but also timing and feeling. I cannot communicate here how impressed I was with this performance. I didn’t know it could work this well. I can only assume this guy (who works for the Fulton as his day job as well) is a professional ideal. My admiration for this art form has just been raised another ten notches, watching this man slide into this slot so smoothly. During final curtain calls, the other actors made a point to celebrate him, too, so that I could see they shared my feelings about his incredible performance.

I feel again like the luckiest woman alive, when I get to travel through a small city and find a shining experience like this one. I’m going to treasure Next to Normal, the Fulton Theatre, and Jeffrey Coon’s performance for some time.


Rating: 9 pills.

Hamilton soundtrack

I don’t usually review music around here, but I’m making an exception for this double-album soundtrack because a) it’s a preview of the actual musical I’ll get to see in about a month’s time (squeal!), and b) it’s highly narrative, so it feels like it belongs.

We’ve all by now heard about the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, right? Based on the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (which I may need to read next). I had heard of it, but hadn’t paid much attention until I heard Miranda interviewed on my favorite podcast, Another Round (rest in peace). (That episode is here.) Once I started paying attention, I knew I had to see it. So I got tickets! to go with my friend Jacinda (talented author of Saint Monkey) next month in Louisville, and we can’t wait. (Sadly, I will not see Miranda perform, himself, but I will trust that they’ve chosen a good replacement.) My parents recently saw it performed in San Francisco (still waiting on their guest review[s]!), and my mother sent me this soundtrack.

And it’s phenomenal. The music is impressive in itself – that is, as music, you want to lean it, turn it up, nod along with the beat. There is such a full story communicated in its lyrics – all of which are perfectly legible, rare enough with any genre of music. I can immediately hear that Hamilton’s life was full of drama and inspiration, and I can imagine Miranda reading Chernow’s book and being captured by the wild true story of one man’s experience in and out of American politics. That he took that story and put it into varied and captivating song… is another inspiration in itself. I can hardly believe people are this talented.

My impression is that the entire play is available in these songs – leave it to be seen how true that is, but this double-album is quite a complete narrative in itself. It has everything: compelling, dramatic story; catchy beats; wildly crisp, awesome, technical execution; feeling, voice, and talent. I am deeply excited to see it live.

I’ve listened to the whole thing exactly two times through before writing this review, but of course I’ll be going back through it over and over before the show. So far, my favorite tracks include the introductory opener, “Alexander Hamilton,” and the following “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which Hamilton meets this central character; the pairing “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” which offer parallel love stories with two Schuyler sisters; and the Cabinet Battles, #1 and #2, which are rap battle versions of the stand-offs between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This is so exciting! This is how you get the kids (and me) excited about history. I’ve written before about the importance of interdisciplinary studies; I think rap-battle-meets-history-lesson might be the best yet. Also the “Ten Duel Commandments,” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” for its sheer drama, and the final two numbers, “The World Was Wide Enough” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” And, well, I love every track.

I also appreciate the threads that tie these songs together: for example, the repeated refrains of helpless and satisfied (in regards to Hamilton’s love life and ambition). I admire the narrative artistry of the song “Satisfied,” in which we rewind to see a scene and story just told in the previous track, from a very different point of view. This is some fine storycrafting.

I’m afraid of going in circles now – or of creating expectations that are too high to satisfy for the live show. So I’ll stop with this high praise.


Rating: 9 shots.
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