Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1946



There was nothing there now except a single commandment. Orwell  © Image Alyssa Yerga-Woolwine


For the Book with Non-Human Characters challenge (2018 Book Challenge ) I decided to try Animal Farm, a book I somehow didn’t have to read in high school.

A book where animals run their own farm? How cute!

Just kidding.

While the premise does sound like it would make an adorable pop-up book, Orwell’s scathing anti-Stalinist fable takes the reader through the realistic rise and fall of a political movement.

Manor Farm is owned by the abusive Mr. Jones. Tired of his drunken incompetence and cruelty, the animals revolt, driving him off the land.  The exhilaration of victory bonds the animals and inspires them to keep control of the farm. More knowledgeable and industrious than Jones, they take over operations, yielding a successful harvest. The dream of a better animal-run tomorrow inspires loyalty and a willingness to work harder.

And then corruption rears its porcine head in the form of Napoleon (only because calling him Joseph Stalin would have been too on the snout).

What starts out as an organized workers’ paradise crumbles and is rebuilt into a dictatorship.

The anthropomorphized characters have the frightening characteristics of their human counterparts, all in some ways complacent in Napoleon’s rise to power. Literal work house, Boxer, blindly follows Napoleon despite obvious exploitation. Stubborn mule Benjamin takes pride in staying uninvolved while complaining about everything. There’s also spin doctor, Squealer, master of propaganda, nameless sheep who bleat what they are told. There’s even a canine NKVD, comprised of dogs indoctrinated from puppyhood to follow Napoleon’s orders.

Orwell’s novella is a quick read, written in a flat matter-of-fact tone that brings out the absurdity of the images and situations. He takes his time portraying the eventual destruction of a benevolent dream. Napoleon uses subtle betrayals, plausible lies and unquestionable patriotism as tools to dismantle the government the animals thought they were working toward. In one of the most disturbing scenes Napoleon orders a purge. What follows is a montage of forced confessions and the subsequent slaughter of the confessors. Dozens of animals, pigs included, are struck down in the bloody massacre while the others look on, horrified.  By the end, Animal Farm is so unrecognizable that most can’t remember what life was like before.

Though Orwell targets Stalinism, this could be any form of government that favors the strong over the weak. Napoleon is no different than any other despot, human or animal. The bleak ending is predictable partly because it’s the inevitable conclusion to what has happened before, partly because history has repeated itself enough for us to know what to expect.

It’s strangely reassuring to see that the same political issues we face to day have been going on for decades and that maybe this isn’t really the end of days. Fake news, rewritten histories, silenced opposition… Apparently, some things will never change.

Thoughts that linger

There’s a scene where a drunk Napoleon runs a lap around the farm while sporting a bowler that still cracks me up.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston, 2016


Used with permission of Penguin Random House.

Spoiler Alerts

For the Book Chosen Solely for Its Cover challenge (2018 Book Challenge)  I went with Exit, Pursued by A Bear by E.K. Johnston. The gorgeous cover features a near silhouetted cheerleader suspended mid-air against a sunset.  She hangs in the air limply, frozen in one moment eternally. But at the same time the waiting hands beneath speak to the inevitable future. Those hands also represent the issues of trust the main character struggles with throughout the book.

The story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Queen Hermione is now Hermione Winters, cheerleading captain entering senior year of high school in a tiny Canadian town of Palermo Heights, Ontario.  While at cheer camp, Hermione is drugged, raped and left half submerged in the nearby lake. She wakes in the hospital with no memory of the crime. The story follows her throughout her senior year as she recovers and overcomes the unwanted label of “the raped girl.”

If this is a realistic portrayal of how rape is dealt with in small Canadian towns, then bravo Canada for treating victims in humane and respectful ways that allow them to make the journey to survivor.

If this is a fairy-tale depicting the way rape should be handled, then it’s a masterful blue print for dealing with the crime.  Hermione has an extensive support system including loving parents, a fiercely loyal friend, Polly, cheer squad teammates (except for her ex-boyfriend, Leo) who help her regain normalcy and the backing of every adult authority figure in her life. She has access to medical care and mental health services and everyone seems emotionally equipped to deal with her recovery.

However, if this is supposed to be a realistic account of young woman’s struggle, there are some aspects that make this story less believable.  Her devoted parents are unrealistically hands off. Her psychiatrist is a condescending jerk who mocks cheerleading (a very important part of Hermione’s life). There’s no judgement or incredulity that normally plague rape victims. All the external forces around Hermione align perfectly to aid her healing without ever interfering.

None of my complaints make the book less readable or enjoyable. Those were just things that stood out as odd. Hermione is a believable character, a young woman with an athlete’s mentality who chooses to be proactive about her survivorship. What Johnston does extremely well is delve into Hermione’s rich inner life to shed light on issues of victimhood that never occur to most people.

Hermione tackles the question of how to feel like a victim when she can’t remember the rape. She’s infuriated by the “rape victim” label she must wear when the violation seems like it happened to some stranger. “This—my attack—it’s just this huge black spot. I don’t remember anything, and so I can’t feel anything. Except, I should feel something. And I don’t,” she explains. Having to act like a “proper” victim becomes a prison impeding the path to healing.

Some of the most authentic moments come from Hermione’s frustration that those around her are evolving because of her rape. As she says, “I don’t want to be anyone’s model for becoming a better person.” It isn’t said meanly. Watching someone experience personal growth as a direct result of your tragedy would be maddening, as Hermione points out, it’s like someone getting the silver lining from your cloud.

The end is a bit convoluted and rushed, but the reader is left with the feeling that Hermione Winters will thrive, which is really what we want.

Thoughts that still linger:

Apparently the first winter snow is a problem for Canadian drivers as well. “…after everyone will have gotten over their sudden-onset amnesia about how to drive on snowy roads.” Thought this was an Ohio thing.

They have a commencement ceremony in October. I don’t know if that’s a Canadian thing or small town Canadian thing. Or maybe commencement in Canada isn’t what I think it is.

There’s a strange (to me) scene where Hermione and her classmates fill out each other’s college roommate forms even though they’re going to different universities.

Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes, 2015


“Always dancing. Always in the sun. Yes.” Shonda Rhimes  Image © Alyssa Yerga-Woolwine


Spoiler Alert

Moving forward with the 2018 Reading Challenge , I’ve chosen Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes for the Celebrity Memoir challenge.

Rhimes, Queen of Shondaland and Thursday Nights writes about a life-changing choice she made spurred on by her older sister’s off-handed criticism: “You never say yes to anything.” Outraged and indignant, Rhimes attempts to defend her choices. Months later she must admit to herself that her comfort zone is a place where she exists but doesn’t live. Despite her successes in work (three intelligent much-loved television shows) and family (three intelligent much-loved daughters) she’s coasting along, actively avoiding challenging situations. To change this, for one year she forces herself to say yes to any opportunity she would normally say no to.

My initial response was “Yeah, right.” Dartmouth grad, USC post-grad, production company running Shonda Rhimes has problems?

There are “yeah, right”able moments that some will find hard to relate to (she’s got a glam team at the ready for special events) but they are outnumbered by the very human moments she shares with readers.

Like many people with fervid imaginations, it was easier for her to be by herself, in herself than deal with the messy frustrating and maddening world of real human beings. During her year of yes, she accepted invitations she would have turned down. Invitations that included giving speeches, attending parties and stepping in front of the camera more often.

She struggles with motherhood vs. career, two lofty goals that are often at odds with each other.  Her year of yes enforced what most women already know deep down. You can have it all, just not simultaneously.

She eventually overcomes the guilt she feels for not wanting to ever marry and revels in the liberating insight. “I really think that I am this happy because I realized that I really don’t want the fairy tale.”

She also talks about weight and what it means to say yes to health. She’s honest about the lure of food as therapy: it isn’t the best way to deal with negative emotions but it’s effective. She talks candidly about the feminist conflict of balancing the quest for health with caring about appearance.  “The feminist in me didn’t want to have the discussion with myself….It felt as though I was judging myself on how I looked. It felt…traitorous to care.”

Fans (or even someone slightly familiar with) of Rhimes’ melodramas might be surprised by the conversational and often hilarious tone. There’s no intensity or urgency, no deep subtext filled dialogue. It’s just Shonda talking about her Year of Yes in a fun, accessible way.

These are the things that still linger in my mind:

I find it endearing that instead of being the Cristina Yang of her own life, she was more like April Kepner, frazzled and unsure.

During her year of yes, Rhimes agreed to always say yes when her kids asked her to play. To her surprise, she found that they only wanted about fifteen minutes of her time before they were off to do other things.

Her nanny’s name is Jenny McCarthy (not the entertainer). She refers to her throughout the book as Jenny McCarthy. Not Jenny or Jen. Jenny McCarthy.

The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942


“…When I’m stretched out on my bunk, I see the sky and that’s all I see.”

Spoiler Alert

Continuing with the 52 week book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge ). This book falls into the Book I’ve been meaning to read category. I’ve started and stopped this book several times in my life, usually not getting past the funeral.  The main character’s disinterest was a turn off. If he doesn’t care, why should I?  I didn’t know much about the plot, and having read it twice now, I still feel like my copy of the book is missing a few chapters.

The story begins at the seemingly uneventful funeral for Meursault’s mother. Upon his return home, he spends a pleasant Saturday with new girlfriend Marie, and at the end of the weekend sums up his life to this point as, “…one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work and that, really, nothing had changed.” His neutral observation carries no tinge of sadness, regret, happiness or relief. This neutrality represents Meursault’s attitude toward every other aspect of his life as well.  He describes major events with the same disinterest, for example:

About marrying Marie: “I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.”

Refusing a possible job promotion: “I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.”

Striking up a friendship with Raymond: “I don’t have reason not to talk to him.”

Meursault prides himself on his detachment the way a pessimist congratulates herself for “seeing the world the way it is.”  Some of his favorite phrases include “It doesn’t make a difference” and “It doesn’t matter”. He shows a touch of disdain for people who do care about anything.  But the passivity he values so highly ultimately leads to his downfall.

His friendship with Raymond proves to be the catalyst that leads him to commit murder. Through a bizarre yet plausible chain of events Meursault finds himself on a beach with a gun, alone with the man who slashed Raymond with a knife earlier that day. The man holds up the knife and Meursault fires, killing him.

In prison, the insular Meursault realizes the way things really work. He’s a slow learner when it comes to the importance of social mores and can’t fathom how his indifference could be viewed as anything but rational. The prosecution, however, sees it as cold and calculating and treat it as evidence.

I should point out that The Stranger is a work of absurdism and so the trial goes a little off the rails. A character witness admits to offering Meursault a cup of coffee during his mother’s vigil. The prosecution uses his acceptance of that coffee against him, claiming that “beside the body of the one who brought him into the world, a son should have refused it”.  Seeing a comedy in a movie theater a day after his mother’s funeral becomes proof that he’s capable of murder.  Though he did commit murder, no one seems interested in the motive or even the crime itself. His crime seems to be breaking away from society-approved behavior that offer safety and security to the rest of us.

Meursault realizes too late that human interactions are “a game”. When he finally does learn, he ultimately chooses not to play at his own expense.

What makes The Stranger so difficult is that Meursault, though guilty of murder, isn’t wrong about “the game”. If his life to that point as been filled with the mundane and the meaningless, why pretend otherwise? Why ask forgiveness of sin when you don’t believe in God? For me, the outrage is that no cares about the murdered man and while Meursault will be put to death by guillotine, it will be for not conforming to the court’s standards, not for ending a life.

These are the things that still linger in my mind:

Not knowing much about the colonization of French Algiers in the forties, I wonder if Meursault could have gotten a way with killing “the Arab” if he simply would have acted sorry.

There’s much debate as to whether Meursault is psychopathic: Perhaps, but I think someone with psychopathy would have known how to play the game and played it to save themselves.  However, he may be the most accurate portrayal of high functioning autism I’ve seen. A sincere inability to lie, even to help himself and a searing bluntness that isn’t meant to hurt. I don’t know if Camus was going for that, but he pulled it off well.