1984, by George Orwell

Among the influential texts of the 20thcentury, Nineteen Eighty-Fouris an exceptional work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. After political satirist George Orwell watched as the Soviets created an authoritarian state much like Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany,  in 1949 he published his nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world in the future, and together with Animal Farm, they have sold more than any two books by any other 20thcentury author.

1984 describes a Dystopia, the antithesis of a Utopia, where Big Brother makes Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini look like sissies. His world is divided into three states, originated from the ashes of World War II: Oceania (the Americas, British Isles, and Australia), Eurasia (the rest of Europe and Russia), and Eastasia (the rest of the world). Continuous war between those three is required to keep the society’s order and peace. WAR IS PEACE

I first read this book when I was in the eighth grade, but I’m not sure why we were required to read it at that age.  I wish I could recall the substance of the discussions by my group of hormonally-challenged teens, but now think that this is a book that is better understood and appreciated long after your first pimple. So, I decided to re-read the book as an adult, hoping I could gain a better appreciation of the classic. Well, it did more than that – it absolutely floored me.  “We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness” sent chills up my spine.

The book is in three parts. The first describes Winston Smith’s predictable life as an unimportant party member.  The second is his life with Julia involving courage, love/lust, and betrayal. And, the final part is about the consequences of those actions, and the methodology of converting political prisoners to embrace Big Brother before disposing of them.  

In the end, Smith is broken, not only physically, but mentally, and after torture of unimaginable dimensions, he completely surrenders, body and soul, to Big Brother. But, in the end, they fix him and he’s happy again – or something — an idea I don’t believe I was able to fully appreciate in middle school.

The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life – the ubiquity of television and cameras, the distortion of language, and his ability to construct the possible nightmare and danger of a society without civil liberties and a government with complete control. His idea that truth can be arranged through media (fake news, e.g.) is perhaps the most relevant idea for us today. The part of the  horror of 1984 is that his future is recognizable in 2019, where our President Trump attempts, through manipulation and propaganda, to maintain control simply for satiating his own power hunger. Truly, in this era of “alternative facts’ and an increasing racial intolerance take on society, today’s reality has caught up with 1984.

But, the book is far from perfect. Orwell is a much better theorist than he is a writer. While not a particularly good novel, 1984 is a very good essay, and its ideas are greater than any book. It is bleak, grim, dreary, frightening and upsetting. His characters lack depth, the rhetoric is sometimes didactic, and I believe most writers would have avoided including the lengthy Goldstein treatise, snappily titled “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivisim”, which alters the novel like a scar disfigures a face.

But all that doesn’t matter, because he got it right.  Simply put, 1984 is unquestionably the most memorable and disturbing novel ever. I have always thought that one of the most important qualities of science fiction is that it frees the author to take controversial, politically charged issues, and create a possible future, and in doing so is able to present a compelling and critical argument for change.  With apologies to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, no one has ever done a better job than Orwell.It was a hard read, but a MUST read. But, remember – Big Brother is watching!!!

— Kenn Johnson

Foolish Church, by Lee Roorda Schott

Pastor Lee visited with the Books, Brews, and Banter group this April. We talked about her inspiring book and how we might apply her wisdom to our own lives.  Below are three individual reviews of her book, which are also posted on Amazon’s page for the book.

This powerful book is somewhat scholarship (footnotes and an extensive bibliography), somewhat how-to (discussion questions at the end of each chapter, plus helpful, practical appendices), and somewhat a memoir of Pastor Lee Roorda Schoot’s leading a church inside a women’s prison. But most of all, it’s a passionate argument to make our churches really real—not just shiny, happy places where the nice people go periodically.  

In a well-paced, anecdotal style, Pastor Lee convinces the reader (at least this reader) that if we open our churches (with wise and necessary boundaries) to ex-offenders, we also open our hearts and minds in a way that benefits each of us and the whole community. FOOLISH CHURCH: MESSY, RAW, REAL, AND MAKING ROOM isn’t just a book about welcoming ex-offenders. It’s a book about welcoming ourselves and the worst things we have ever done. About acknowledging life’s messiness. And making room.

—Sharelle Moranville

“Pastor Lee,” as the inmates at the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women at Mitchellville call her, gets down to the raw and messy sides of being part of a church today. Are we welcoming? Inclusive? Judgmental? Do we accept one another’s scars (and our own), or are we looking for a sanitized community that’s an idealized version of ourselves? In clear, direct and inspirational prose, Schott shows us the way to the church community we could be, using her relationship with women inmates as a model. A book well worth reading for any faith community.

— Pat Prijatel

Foolish Church is a relatively short book that is long on wisdom about how to build more caring communities with room for people the church has often overlooked. Her message is a powerful, yet simple message that applies to all of us.  It is a plea to move beyond an assembly of the upright and proper, to make room for those on the edges of respectability. 

One quote that really resonates is “how do we become churches that build boundaries, but not walls.” Are we welcoming, inclusive, judgmental, or looking for a sanitized community? I believe that those are also questions that should be heeded by our President in making our country one that builds boundaries, not walls.

—Ken Johnson

In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“And so once more to the wandering Road,” declares Bryson in his 2000 book In a Sunburned Country. His previous excursions were along the Appalachian Trial in the national bestseller A Walk in the Woods, and rambles through Britain in Notes from a Small Island, and now to his visits to Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, the hottest, driest weather, and the most lethal wildlife found on the planet (the ten most poisonous snakes, sharks and crocodiles in abundance, cassowary’s with razor claws, venomous seashells, spiders galore, even fluffy caterpillars and knife-like plants).

To travel with Bryson is not to simply experience a locale, but rather to enjoy his special visions and his humor – self-deprecating, but with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, the outlandish and sublime. I lost track of how many times I laughed until there were tears running down my cheeks.  He doesn’t try to be funny at all costs, it’s just the way he is. For example, he says: “Cricket is the only sport that shares its name with an insect”, and “the following are all real places: Wee Waa, Poowon, Burrumbuttock, Suggan Buggan, Jiggalong, and the supremely satisfying Tittybong.”

Australia is fascinating, and Bryson has done an excellent job of telling us why – touching on a little bit of everything – history, politics, people, geology, biology, flora and fauna. Wherever he goes, he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, obliging, and quirky. He says that Aussies spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and there is nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how a snake bit Uncle Bob on his groin, but it’s okay now as he’s off the life support machine. Clearly, Bryson’s fascination and affection for Australia shines through.

On the other hand, Bryson tries to set the record straight about Australia\’s original people, pointing out that the Aborigines are the world\’s oldest continuously maintained culture and they were sophisticated enough to get to Australia from Asia by boat, long before Europeans even figured out how to sail. But he also writes about white Australians\’ racism and tragic treatment of the Aborigines, but acknowledges that, like most white Australians, he has had virtually no contact with the Aborigine population.

The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous performance by Bryson, who combines humor, wonder and unflagging curiosity. My only negative criticism is that the book would have benefited with the addition of better, more extensive maps.  Since Bryson was constantly on the move, I found myself frequently going back to the four maps at the beginning of the book. Pictures would have helped too. For example, here’s a panorama of Uluru (Ayers Rock), the world’s largest monolith. Words alone don’t convey the beauty one of Australia’s most recognizable natural landmarks around sunset, showing its distinctive red coloration. 

I highly recommend this enjoyable and delightful book. Bryson did a considerable amount of research before heading Down Under and his writing shows it. As the Aussies would put it, he’s done a fair dinkum job.

— Ken Johnson