Unapologetically Opinionated: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, aka the “Hitch,” was always unapologetically opinionated – on everything from journalism to political ethics to the non-existence of God.

Although Hitch was opinionated, he never allowed himself to be intellectually frozen. Before he died in 2011, he changed his mind as the world evolved and he saw fit. But that’s not why I find him worthy of reading and rereading. I turn to him for his informative, inviting prose and command of the English language.

Hitch was a British-born, Oxford-educated raconteur, debater, and lecturer who became an American citizen and lived almost half his life in Washington D.C. Numerous critics regard him as one of the finest English-language essayists of the last fifty years. He wrote extensively, but not exclusively, on politics, particularly American politics and the international Left. He also penned essays on history, literature, and language, to name a few of his wide-ranging topics. While some of his pieces aren’t in my wheelhouse, and I don’t endorse all of his opinions, I continue to admire his candid style.

Three recommendations: Hitch-22, A Memoir; And Yet … (Essays); Arguably (Essays).

A few Hitch excerpts:

On tyranny: “The conventional word that is employed to describe tyranny is ‘systematic.’ The true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not it’s regularity but it’s unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax.”

On patriotism: “Tribal feelings belong to the squalling childhood of the human race, and become no more charming in their senescence …. But ironies of history may yet save us. English language and literature, oft-celebrated as one of the glories of ‘Western’ and even ‘Christian’ civilization, turn out to have even higher faculties than used to be claimed for them. In my country of birth the great new fictional practitioners have in their front ranks names like Rushdie, Ishiguro, Kureishi, Mo. This attainment on their part makes me oddly proud to be whatever I am, and convinces me that internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”

For more information, see Christopher Hitchens on Wikipedia.

Inside Story: A Martin Amis Funhouse

Review of Inside Story by Martin Amis, 2020.

An Amis novel is like the weather in May. You never know what to expect. I’ve loved two of his novels (London Fields and Time’s Arrow), liked others, and, on occasion, been completely disappointed.

Amis’s prose is inventive, but it’s often overdone. He’s certainly no Hemingway, limiting adverbs and adjectives. On the contrary, Amis wields them like a boxer, at times jabbing, but usually lining them up for a haymaker. Over the course of five decades, he’s managed to alienate both sides of the reading divide: to literary stuffed shirts, he’s uncouth; to genre buffs, he’s too high-minded. As for Inside Story, I didn’t love it, yet it tickled my funny bone. And my mind. I laughed aloud and, every twenty or so pages, I stopped to think – on everything from Donald Trump to death to beauty to the history of the novel.

Inside Story is a mashup of fictionalized autobiography, literary observations, and sociopolitical opinions. Although subtitled A Novel, the book is largely (and unabashedly) biographical. When Amis is at his best, the narrative has a gravitational pull. His words spin a funhouse of warped mirrors. He regales readers with unique insights, both frivolous and cerebral. Some dismiss Amis as sexist. Others say he’s a bounder; still others, a little shite. I don’t care. I’m loathe to shun books due to their writer’s transgressions. [Having said that, if Putin writes a book, I’ll shred it.]

Alright, back to Inside Story. Martin Amis grew up in a time and place of, let’s say, amorous exuberance (Swinging London, 1960s-70s). If you enter his funhouse, you’ll encounter womanizing, yes, and braggadocio, but also poignancy, self-doubt, and generosity of spirit.

A few excerpts from Inside Story:

On the English language: “Great Britain no longer had an empire – except the empire of words; not the imperial state, just the imperial tongue.”

On the pretzel logic of Biblical hellfire: “It’s not that eternity never ends – it never even begins.”

Describing Donald Trump: “That chicken-hawk, that valorised ignoramus, that titanic vulgarian, dishonest to the ends of his hair.”

Windows into Other Worlds: Gifts for the 2021 Holidays

To give a book is to give a window into another world. Here are a few gift ideas for the 2021 Holidays.

First, my crime fiction suggestion:

The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, 2021. In The Dark Remains, Rankin completes an unfinished McIlvanney novel after his fellow Scotsman’s death. The story warms up slowly but is bubbling at the end. You can’t go wrong with Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir.

Bewilderment by Pulitzer-prize-winner Richard Powers, 2021. Bewilderment is set in the near-future, in a time of ecological collapse. Few adults are willing to confront the collapse. As with most dystopian fiction, there are didactic passages. However, the storyline eclipses them, as does Powers’ vision, which goes beyond the dystopic. A father and his son wrestle with the collapse, hoping that science will offer respite. It doesn’t. But the son’s love does.

Ring by André Alexis, 2021. Ring is a philosophical inquiry as much as a novel, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you have a literary fiction aficionado on your list, especially of 19th century fiction, Ring should please them. They’ll enter a contemplative world set in Toronto, a novel of manners à la Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy.

No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain, 2007. In a previous post, I noted that Kitchen Confidential is my favourite Bourdain book. No Reservations runs a close second. No one would call Bourdain an earth-shattering writer yet he’s pensive as well as informative. This book delivers an entertaining combination of food and travel, two things many people miss these days.

It’s An Amusement Park

Anthony Bourdain had a cult-like following before he died (by suicide, in 2018). His following has not dissipated. He’s still revered by foodies, chefs, raconteurs, and travellers.

To my mind, Bourdain’s first food book is still his best: Kitchen Confidential (2000). It reveals his true self. His later books show a more polished version of the same man. Kitchen Confidential is as noteworthy today as it was two decades ago. In restaurants, the maitre d’, waitstaff, and bartenders are known as the front-of-the-house; the chefs, cooks, and dishwashers inhabit the back-of-the-house. Kitchen Confidential uncorks the back-of-the-house, a fiefdom known for foul language and Gulag-like labour.

Bourdain does not paint a pretty picture, but he does paint a true picture, a picture I happen to know. In my travelling days, I worked in 30+ restaurants, from L.A. to San Diego to Boston, from Perth to London to Toronto, in positions from waiter to line cook to sommelier. The great thing about the restaurant business is that you could land in a city and get a job in a day or two, often with few questions asked; you’d then work your way up the restaurant ladder, to a place with better food and/or money (usually both).

To Bourdain, good food was as much about cooking with honesty and craftmanship as exotic ingredients. He climbed his own ladder, eventually moving beyond kitchens to a career as a TV host and personality. He was a complex man, beloved for many things: his integrity, his enthusiasms, his no-bullshit persona. He was wired to go out on limbs, which fostered an I’ll-eat-anything attitude. To paraphrase Bourdain, your body’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.

On Foot to Canterbury and Beyond

On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage by Ken Haigh, 2021. University of Alberta Press. Shortlisted for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Near the beginning of On Foot to Canterbury, author Ken Haigh poses a timeless question: Why do humans travel? Haigh lets Robert Louis Stevenson answer: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe.”

On Foot to Canterbury is Haigh’s second travel book (following Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan). His new book recounts a walk from Winchester to Canterbury, England, hiking the Pilgrims’ Way. The narrative is immediately engaging; it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. In addition to being a personal journey and a tribute to his father, On Foot to Canterbury is a cultural journey. It delves deeply into England’s past. Haigh deftly weaves together three main threads — travel memoir, English literature, and English history — producing a vibrant tapestry.

With his journey coming to an end, Haigh asks himself why humans go on pilgrimages. In his words, “there is a wonderful simplicity about a pilgrimage. Each morning you rise and put on the same clothes …. You break your fast, hoist your pack onto your shoulders, and hit the road.” As you walk, you ponder and philosophize. Haigh’s journey took him beyond his physical destination, to a Pilgrims’ Way of the mind and soul. On Foot to Canterbury did the same thing for me.