What I've Been Reading
Orwell, Our Man in Havana, Captain America #695
Orwell by Jeffrey Meyers- Orwell is probably my favorite modern writer. I appreciate the terse and straightforward nature of his writing. Like Hemingway, he owes a lot to the economized brevity of journalism, there is urgency and a sense that one is getting "straight talk". However, unlike Hemingway, Orwell isn't afraid to imbue his work with humor and ironic detachment. Consider the hilariously self deprecating opening line of his essay Shooting an Elephant, "In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me." His tirade against central heating in his essay "As I Please" is a great illustration of his personae as a lovable and witty curmudgeon. His daily journal entries during the bombing of London during World War II are an indispensable account for posterity written by someone who was truly level headed, patriotic ("It is exactly the people whose hearts have never left at the sight of the Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes."), and brave. Orwell never flinched from an opportunity to defend his ideals and enlisted on the side of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil war against the Fascists. There he experienced one of the many traumas that would lead to his early demise when he was shot through the throat by a sniper's bullet. I've read almost all of Orwell's novels and two collections of his essays (the editions edited by George Packer) and I felt that I still couldn't pin the man down. His ideals rather than his ideas were the most striking thing about him and often it's difficult to parse this man and his writing when trying to map his ideology (just as fractured and contradictory as anyones) onto the political spectrum of today. I had read Christopher Hitchens' tome Why Orwell Matters, which is very similar to his work on Thomas Jefferson. Besides the occasionally salient observation or reinterpretation of Orwell's life and work, I felt like Hitchens' goal was to vindicate his own world view with the assistance of Orwell. Jefferey Meyer's biography does a great job of separating the man from his venerable catalogue of literary works and paints a compelling picture of Orwell as a man. It's by no means hagiographic or exploitive and tawdry (though there are many detailed accounts of the author's sex life, none too flattering) Maybe the most important discovery that I made while reading it was Meyer's illustration of the forces that drove Orwell, the middle class guilt that drove him to perpetuate his own suffering. Indeed, it seems that Orwell went out of his way to make life difficult for himself: enlisting in the colonial police force in Burma, sneaking into Spain to fight Franco's fascists, electing to live as a "tramp" for two years (a harsh experienced chronicled in the great Down and Out in Paris and London), moving into the city of London from the country during the Nazi bombing raids when everyone else was moving out, venturing to the damp and murky Island of Jura to hammer out his masterpiece 1984. The living conditions on the island combined with the tuberculosis he never treated sealed his fate. Orwell is a fascinating character, a hard nut to crack and an icon that every political movement is trying to snatch up. Conservatives and Libertarians look to Animal Farm (my favorite of his books) as evidence of the horrors of communism, leftists point to Burmese Days and many of essays to advocate for socialist economic systems and social justice. I feel like I have a good grip on Orwell and enough respect for the man to have not tried to weaponize his ideas to fit my agenda. Many have, as evidenced by the spike in sales of 1984 the day after the 2016 election, interpreted the future dystopia of that book as a crystal ball with which to see the policy proposals of their political enemies. While surely many of these overzealous would-be readers will find plenty of solace in the "two minutes of hate" portions of the story, I would guess that many of them now have a barely skimmed copy of Orwell's final work on their shelf collecting dust.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene- It was my intention by reading Graham Greene to familiarize myself with post-war spy novels (John LeCarre is next on my list) and after having enjoyed films based on Greene's work (Lang's Ministry of Fear & Reed's "The Third Man") I considered "Our Man in Havana" a good place to start, after all it was rather short and I'd have another Reed film starring Alec Guinness to look forward to at the end of my venture. What I wasn't prepared for was just how funny this book would be. It's a scathing take down of accountability and the tendency to "fail upwards" in a corporate hierarchy and when the book is being poignant, a rather disenfranchised, anarchist look at the folly of waring nations. Can't we just be friends and see each other as fellow humans? This is the observation our lead character, bumbling vacuum cleaner salesman Mr. Wormhold finds himself bound by as he contemplates the murder of an enemy agent, a man who he recently discovers is impotent, and all too human. As for it's setting, post revolutionary Cuba, teetering on the brink of chaos, is a rather absurd place rife with class conflict. The old guard takes the form of Captain Segura, a brutal police chief who classifies prisoners into a "torturable class" (the poor) and the un-tortureable, "those who would be outraged by it. One only tortures by consent." It was these ideas about colonial supremacy and class strife that brought Greene into conversation with George Orwell, even though he was a committed communist.
Captain America #695 by Mark Waid & Chris Samnee- The dream team who brought Daredevil out of his grim bell towers and dingy alley ways and sent him to San Francisco in a bid to recapture some of that colorful early 70's John Romita & Roy Thomas fun try their hand at the star spangled avenger. Their first issue definitely delivers. In a bid to recapture the fun of reading monthly comics and eschewing the labyrinthine calamity of re-numbering their comics every twelve issues (a confusing hurtle to new readers, which was initially mean to entice them) Marvel has conceived of "Legacy", a move away from social justice online blog baiting and a clean slate for the real fans who have been so long maligned. Samnee is doing some of his best work here and I can see him becoming my favorite Cap artists since the great Steve Epting. The colors pop, the action is dynamic but appropriately cartoony, almost with a Gendy Trakofsky vibe. Waid's scripting is appropriately patriotic, playing on the heart strings as Cap bravely stands up for a collection of Americans from all walks of life. We get a nice trip down memory lane highlighting Cap's world war two exploits and thus torch bearer of all that is right and good with the country. This sunny optimism mixed with good old fashioned bad guy punching makes for a very comforting read that made me smile to myself a few times. Downside, Cap is doing battle with the sort of vague white supremacist hordes that are the only allowable villains now a-days and in Waid's estimation probably the only real threat to the country. Maybe it would be nice if Cap could take on some foreign terrorists, rogue government actors, anarcho-communists or any other fringe movement that happens to plague the nation. But that wouldn't really fit the agenda. Besides that, I'm looking forward to the next issue. Maybe, I'll even subscribe, and not to that new fangled digital comics malarky. Reading these new "Legacy" books, with their retro vibe and throw back advertisement stylings requires turning the pages of a physical comic book.