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.

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.

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.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.

When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history: meticulous research, easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones, and personal interest. Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, investigates a very specific slice of history all but erased by prejudice and the passing of time.

The idea of Brooklyn, N.Y., having a significant queer history surprises many present residents, but Ryan cracks open what looks like a blank slate and finds richness there, beginning with the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman represents an early association with Brooklyn and with white men who have sex with men (people of color and queer women did not appear in the historical record yet). From here, Ryan covers periods of growing visibility through turn-of-the-century newspapers and the theater; the rise in criminalization and persecution of queers in the 1910s; and the quick expansion of both the queer scene and Brooklyn at large in the 1920s.

The Depression, the end of Prohibition and the Hays movie code brought new strictures on a vibrant world of bars and cruising venues. Mobilization for World War II offered great opportunities for queer people, as men joined the armed forces and women went to work in factories and shipyards like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the war, a societal move toward conservatism, the suburbanization of New York City and the shutdown of Brooklyn’s waterfront lead to what Ryan calls “the great erasure” of queer community and history.

When Brooklyn Was Queer considers the lives and contributions of well-known artists like Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Truman Capote, and numerous lesser-known performers, businesspeople and blue-collar workers. Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Ryan is careful to point out the challenges of this kind of research. During many of the years covered here, homosexuality as a concept was unknown: a man could have sex with men but be “normal,” or he could be a “pervert,” based solely on appearance or mannerism. Vocabularies for such identities were at first nonexistent and varied over time. And much of the information collected about queer people in history is deeply problematic, recorded by hostile and prejudiced organizations, and presumably with limited cooperation by the people being studied. Finally, Ryan is sensitive to the intersecting limitations faced by women and people of color.

Only in his introduction and epilogue does Ryan share his personal connection to these stories, his own history in Brooklyn and his heartfelt desire for this history to be told. While the rest of his book takes the style of traditional history writings (no “I” pronoun), he reaches out in the final lines: “I look forward to having a future where we can also have a past, and I look forward to creating it with you.” Having been engrossed in these pages, his reader feels that same connection and hopefulness.


This review originally ran in the January 31, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 windows.

I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 head of cattle.

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler

This entertaining and informative history of women warriors briskly covers huge swathes of time and place, arguing for the significance of a phenomenon as old as warfare itself.

With Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, Pamela Toler (The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War) reveals a history many readers will meet with surprise as well as fascination. By the end of this brisk accounting of just some of the many women warriors Toler found in her research, she makes it clear that while little known, this phenomenon is neither new nor unusual.

Women Warriors is a broad examination that spans history from the second millennium BCE through the present, and across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Toler details dozens of examples, from the better-known (Matilda of Tuscany, Njinga, Begum Sahib and, of course, Joan of Arc) to the obscure (Ani Pachen, Mawiyya, Bouboulina), in two- or three-page summaries. She notes primary sources in each case and questions “facts” where appropriate (for example, numbers of troops are notoriously dubious), often presenting a fact in the main body and then questioning it in a footnote. Chapters organize women warriors into mothers, daughters, queens, widows; besieged defenders and leaders of attacks; women disguised as men and women undisguised.

Plentiful footnotes serve an important role, especially evidencing a certain wry humor, as when Toler repeatedly and impatiently points out the tendency to compliment women as behaving like men and to denigrate men as behaving like women (a habit consistent throughout history and common to women as well as men). Double standards are likewise emphasized, as in the way historians and archeologists have examined evidence. For example, the grave known as the “Birka man,” from 834 CE, had long been considered that of a male because of the martial burial items found with him. In 2014, a bioarcheologist determined that the bones were actually that of a female. Despite follow-up DNA testing, scholars, archeologists and historians continue to argue about the identification of the Birka woman. As Toler points out, the scholarly contortions now employed to deny her status as warrior were never mentioned while her skeleton was assumed to be that of a male.

With such copious content, Toler has been careful to keep her book a manageable length: at just over 200 pages, Women Warriors is an easy entry to an expansive topic. Toler found thousands of examples of women warriors in her research–many more than are contained in these pages–and argues that this proliferation deserves to be treated as more than a series of freak anomalies. In conclusion, answering an earlier historian’s claim that women in warfare are “the most insignificant exceptions,” Toler sums up: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell, no!”


This review originally ran in the January 17, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 naginata.

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

Eula Biss, who I adore for Notes From No Man’s Land, with her second nonfiction work: On Immunity.

The precipitating event here is Biss’s becoming a mother. She has a new baby to worry about, decisions to make about vaccinations, and the H1N1 flu strain is spreading frighteningly. She’s surrounded by other mothers who have a wide range of feelings about vaccines and immunizations. In danger after giving birth, Biss is given a transfusion of blood from a public blood bank. These events and opinions swirl in her head, and because she’s Eula Biss, she does research. She reads widely, from antiquity through present-day research articles and conspiracy theories; she interviews doctors, including her father, an oncologist. In fact this is a family affair, calling not only on the father (a sympathetic, sweetly caring, somewhat fatalistic man) but Biss’s mother, a poet, and sister, a Kant scholar and professor of ethics. Biss’s son turns out to battle significant allergies; she and her husband have to decide whether to have him undergo surgery, as well as simple vaccines.

Obviously, the timely subject is the “anti-vaxxers” movement (a term Biss never uses), with their claims that vaccines can cause autism, among other things (the autism claim in particular unsupported by any scientific evidence, although as she points out, a theory once voiced can never be retracted). Vaccination and variolation go back a ways, though, and part of what Biss undertakes here is a social history from the beginnings of germ theory and the Jenner vaccine through the present. Because she is a literary mind, she is also concerned with myth, literary history, and linguistics: in the first few pages, she searches for synonyms for protect and comes to shield, shelter, secure, and then inoculate. The very first page deals with “the first story I ever heard about immunity”: that of Achilles. She ranges across Voltaire’s Candide, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the latter carrying a lot of weight especially late in the book. In other words, it’s the kind of essaying I love: multidisciplinary examination of an important topic of our time and of all times.

There is a central ethical question here, as Biss interrogates the idea of ‘herd immunity’ (unfortunately, as she points out, sounds awfully close to ‘herd mentality’ with its negative association). If only most of us get immunized, a few of us can get away with skipping it; but the threshold for safety within that model is detectable only when we’ve passed it. And the few who skip vaccines, and get away with it, thereby relying on the many who did their civic duty: well, there’s something a little selfish about that, right? Biss has said in an interview (crediting her sister with the idea) that this is much like traffic laws. One or two people can blow through stop signs and get away with it if most of us are obeying the law. But if enough of us disregard that stop sign, soon there will be carnage, and some innocent rule followers will be hurt as well. I’m also thinking about mountain bike trails, because it just won’t stop raining here where I live. Sure, the trails will recover if a few people ride them wet. But only because most of us don’t. Which actually makes the few who ride ruts into the mud really selfish, in my opinion. Out there having their fun while I stay home and wait less and less patiently for the right conditions.

This is also about the extent to which each of us is an individual, and in turn part of something larger, like it or not. The immune system was not introduced as a concept until fairly recently, in the 1970s. Biss muses on the blur between the natural body and the body politic, the ways in which we are undeniably individual (I can clearly see where my body ends) and undeniably united (as in shared risk).

This book is full of metaphor: the original use of ‘inoculation’ as a metaphor for grafting, “as apples are cultivated by grafting a stem from one tree onto the roots of another,” because the initial inoculation was variolation, the skin slit and infectious material placed inside. “It was a metaphor for grafting a disease, which would bear its own fruit, to the rootstock of the body.” Later, “Vaccinating in advance of the flu, critics suggest, was a foolish preemptive strike. But preemption in war has different effects than preemption in health care–rather than generating ongoing conflict, like our preemptive strike against Iraq, preventive health care can make further health care unnecessary.”

These are some of the many beauties of On Immunity. I learned a lot. And I appreciate the ways in which it is like Notes From No Man’s Land. Both deal with what it means to be a citizen, and what damage fear can do. (Also, it will perhaps not surprise you to learn that racism has played a role in the history of immunization.) But, I don’t know, this one did not blow me to pieces like the earlier book did. For one thing, the organization of this book is very different from that last one. On Immunity reads like a single, long narrative. Page breaks are merely breaks; the thread (or various braided threads) connects each smoothly. This is not an essay collection but a long essay in (untitled) chapters. Notes is properly a collection, with an organizing scheme, meaningfully titled chapters, and an order to them.

It has been a good two and a half years since I read that one (and went back and reread a short section a little more recently), but what I recall is incandescent line-by-line writing, fascinatingly complex structure, and great subtlety. This one, On Immunity, is a good book in many ways. But none of these three elements struck me. The writing is always graceful and clear and communicative and often clever, but it did not ring for me like poetry. The structure – well, there is still a structure, a braid, and a range. There are recurring characters (the family members). But I missed a table of contents that could almost be read itself like a song. And the subject matter is faced much more head-on. Not a criticism; but a very different kind of book.

Here is a subtlety I did appreciate, though. For Biss’s subtitle, An Inoculation, I will let her tell it. (From the same Barnes and Noble interview, linked above.)

The subtitle actually started out as a little joke to myself. I didn’t intend for it to remain as the subtitle. But once that subtitle stuck I did start to think of certain aspects of the book that I was uncomfortable with as working like an inoculation works. One of the things I was reluctant to do in this book was repeat fears of vaccination and risk spreading them further, because many of the fears of vaccination that I write about in this book were fears that I didn’t know about and didn’t have until other mothers shared them with me. I felt a little bit infected by fears I hadn’t had before, and I didn’t want to participate in doing that more.

So when I started thinking about the book as an inoculation, I saw the possibility that it could work the way a vaccine works. A vaccine introduces a small amount or a tempered version of the virus into the body — just enough to that the body is able to recognize it and deal with it when it encounters it again in the future. So I was thinking that maybe the book would work like this. If I introduced these fears to readers who may not have encountered them yet, perhaps I could introduce them in a way that would better equip those readers to deal with those fears the next time they ran into them.

I’ll end there: with a lovely metaphor for the fine work of this fine book.


Rating: 8 risks.
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