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Posts Tagged ‘history’

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

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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
Doubleday

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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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In Patagonia (1977)
by Bruce Chatwin
260 pages
Vintage Classics

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Englishman Bruce Chatwin spends months travelling, mostly on foot, through Patagonia, the sparsely populated and half-wild southern peninsula of South America which is divided between Argentina and Chile.  One of the products of that journey is this book, which is very episodic, and details the people Chatwin meets, the things he sees, and also contains portions of history, such as stories of the conflicts between native Indians and settlers, or speculations about the eventual fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Maybe one of the most notable parts of this book is that, after it sold well and became widely known, many people in it disputed its contents. Chatwin never denied that he changed things up to sound better, so as long as you don’t expect it to be full of absolute truth, it’s a pretty interesting read. The last third of the book concerns Chatwin’s stories about one of his relatives who did a lot of seafaring and settled in Patagonia – I think this part holds less interest for to the general reader.

Overall I’d say it was an okay read.  You don’t need to have any particular interest in the region in order to enjoy the book, but I wouldn’t say that reading it made me especially more motivated to visit this corner of the world.

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Civil War Stories
by Ambrose Bierce
Dover Thrift Editions
128 pages

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Ambrose Bierce was a young man during the American Civil War, and enlisted in fighting for the Federal forces, with whom he participated in many bloody battles.  These experiences likely went a large way to forming the cynical and jaded views he carried through the rest of his life, and he came to be known by the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce’.

The 16 stories in this collection are mostly of the sort that occupy a middle ground between truth and fiction – they’re based on the author’s first-hand experience, but shaped and fleshed-out to fit the needs and duties of art.

Thoughts on some of the stories: “What I saw at Shiloh” begins the collection off with a very vivid description of troops maneuvering and engaging the enemy on the battlefield.  “Four Days in Dixie” follows the story of some northern soldiers who sneak over to the other side to spy, and then have trouble making their way back.  “A Horseman in the Sky” not only contains the vivid imagery of the title, but introduces a theme that gets repeated in many of the other stories, where a soldier finds himself fighting and killing his closest relatives.  The famous “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” is here too, which touches on the slightly fantastic, a world that Bierce would explore in some of his stories collected elsewhere. The last story, “The Mocking-bird”, ends things off with some very poetic imagery of dreams and nature.

Ambrose Bierce, born 1842, disappeared in Mexico in 1914

Bierce is an excellent prose writer, bringing the reader into the story by relating things in a matter-of-fact tone. The main weakness of this collection is that some of the plots and events do repeat themselves from story to story.  Also, occasionally I felt hindered by my lack of knowledge of both Civil War history and military terminology.  On the whole, I think I prefer Bierce’s supernatural stories.

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