Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the Spanish War (1938 & 1953)
by George Orwell
247 pages


George Orwell was among those foreigners who travelled to Spain to enlist on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), and in less than a year of experiences he talks about training, fighting on the front line, being involved in the street-fighting that broke out between the various leftist factions in Barcelona, being wounded by a bullet through his neck, and finally barely escaping Spain with his wife when the organization he had fought with, and had already been discharged from, was declared to be sympathizers with the enemy in a cloud impenetrable non-truth that would not be out of place in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Interspersed with Orwell’s personal experiences is commentary on the different political forces at play, and the betrayal of the ideals Orwell felt he was fighting for, up to the point where he realized it was a fight between two possible future forms of dictatorship.

I don’t know a lot about the Spanish war, and I picked this book up as a fan of Orwell’s writing.  There’s a lot of sections that are an alphabet soup of acronyms, and it’s sometimes hard to find your way if you’re not familiar with the history. Even the description of the fighting at the front somehow comes across as a bit dry and dull, and the only really compelling parts for me were when the fighting among leftist factions breaks out in the city, and then the final section where Orwell tries to find a way out of Spain with his wife, while most of the people he has known are thrown into jail without being charged by the very Government side they were fighting for. Also interesting was Orwell’s description of taking a bullet through the neck, his immediate thoughts and feelings as he thought he was going to die, and his recovery afterward.

The thing that probably surprised me the most about this book is that I always thought of Orwell as a sort of ‘disillusioned socialist’, but all throughout this book, no matter how bad the behaviour he sees among the leftist forces and administration, he never gives up his idea of a worker’s revolution, which is in his mind is somehow set apart from communism. Though I wouldn’t agree with his ideal of the overthrow of capitalism (or even the notion that history is moving in a direction of continuous improvement) this book is important in that it gives a good first-hand account of events, and contrasts them with the outright lies that were published in newspapers both in the country and internationally, no matter which side the editorialists sympathized with.

The book-length Homage to Catalonia is appended with an essay written about 15 years later, Looking Back on the Spanish War, which gives a bit of perspective. Maybe the most amusing part of the book is when Orwell visits Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church and calls it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and questioned the tastes of the Anarchists in not blowing it up when they had the chance.

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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009)
by David Grann
325 pages


Percy Fawcett was one of the most well-known and respected explorers of his generation when, in 1925, he headed a widely publicized expedition in the Amazon to find a rumoured city which some equated with El Dorado, accompanied by his son and his son’s best friend – and was never heard from again.

“Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have some streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men.” (pg.56)

This book tells of the life of Fawcett, of the expeditions he led where he displayed remarkable survival skills, and the way that the legend of a magnificent city in the Amazon grew in his mind as he suffered through constant financial problems and the horrors of the first World War. The book also paints a vivid picture of the world Fawcett lived in, and the history of exploration of the Amazon jungles.  A portion of the book details the author’s own effort to get to the point near which Fawcett’s party disappeared for good – it’s much easier these days, with planes and aluminum boats and outboard motors and satellite phones. It’s estimated that over the years at least a hundred people have died trying to find out what happened to Fawcett’s party of three.

The whole thing has the atmosphere of a Werner Herzog movie, whether it be the conquistadors of Aguirre, The Wrath of God or the 19th century industrialists of Fitzcarraldo – since I quite enjoyed those, I enjoyed this book too. The author is a magazine writer, and I think one of the things that keeps the book from being great is that it relies a bit too much on cliffhangers and crucial information obviously being held back until a later point in the book – it goes past the point of engagement to making the reader feel somewhat manipulated.

One of the most interesting points made in the book is that, following the initial gold-fever of European explorers which ended in disappointment, many scholars dismissed the Amazon as a place which was too poor in resources to support an advanced civilization.  However, this was mostly based on scholars observing the remains of native tribes several hundred years after contact with the first Europeans – long after diseases new to the Americas had taken their toll. I don’t think I”m giving too much of the ending away to say that explorers have indeed discovered traces of large cities and broad highways through the jungle that matched up with the stories of a rich and advanced civilization, and the reports of early European explorers of vast populations, and these cities likely existed up until the point when they were decimated by newly arrived disease.

Additionally, this is the first book I read borrowed as an electronic book from the library.  It was a pretty good experience, and I wouldn’t mind reading something this way again.

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Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s (2009)
by Tim Page
208 pages


This book should be called Tim Page’s Pretty Great Life.

There’s an assumption with memoirs or biographies, especially ones that refer to a difficult condition in the subtitle, that there will be a significant dosage of mess-ups, misery and misfortune. It was therefore in an odd way depressing to finish reading this autobiography and realize that the author has been quite fortunate, and carved out a decent life for himself.

Page was passionate about classical and opera music at an early age.

Page grew up in a family which was supportive financially, emotionally, and socially.  He was immersed in excellent music, literature, and other rich cultural products at an early age, and was already successful enough as a child to be covered by Time magazine (though he ended up being edited out of the published feature).  As a young man he encountered mentors that aided in his development, and he quickly found a niche in which he could make a living (and eventually earn a Pulitzer prize for his writing on classical music).  Not only has not everyone been so fortunate, but I think it can be easily said that Page’s life has been made much easier by privileges not extended to the majority of humanity.

Of course there are some darker moments here too.  Use and abuse of drugs in his teen years. Appearing to be a genius to most people, yet being so disinterested in High School that he flunked many courses and eventually dropped out. A passenger in the crash of an overloaded pickup truck of teenagers on a weekend binge that resulted in several deaths. And the endless social awkwardness and difficulty in connecting with other people that comes as a part of Asperger’s syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in his forties.

If the above sounds like a slam, this is actually one of the best books that I’ve read in quite a while, and I have a hard time imagining that there will be many other books published that can compete with this one in evoking the essential spirit of growing up in the second half of the twentieth century.  Though I’m much younger than the author, I think he captured something essential about trying to survive and find yourself in a world both so permissive and so difficult and hostile.  I like how he appreciated both classical and rock music in a similar way, on its own merits.

Some people might protest that there’s not enough personal material here, such as information on interactions with his siblings, or the women in his life, or his children, but somehow I don’t think that being exhaustive is a necessary element for an autobiography.  Bob Dylan’s autobiography similarly left unmentioned much of his personal life, but sometimes those things just aren’t what the author wants to talk about. This book doesn’t scale incredible artistic highs, or take a steely look at things from every angle, but if you take it for what it is–in the same way it’s best to take people–it’s a great and inspiring read.

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