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.”

Shepherding a Flock of Words

A few weeks ago, Ben Fox of Shephard.com asked for a curated list of books for his new site. The site was created to link readers to books, not just any books, but books recommended by authors as opposed to algorithms (which are used extensively by sites like Amazon).

Ben asked for a focused theme. I chose “the best Canadian detective and mystery novels.” My top five 📚 recommendations are:

A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Until the Night by Giles Blunt

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

Click the link below to see the full recommendations and a review of each title.

https://shepherd.com/best-books/canadian-detective-and-mysteries

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.

Norwegian Morality Tales: Jo Nesbo

I’m late to the game. I started reading Jo Nesbo in 2021. He’s been an international bestseller for years. Maybe that’s why I avoided him: I thought he could be a prolific writer who churned out serviceable but boring novels.

Although Nesbo is certainly prolific, he’s anything but boring. He writes consistently intriguing crime novels, not to mention work in other genres, such as children’s literature.

So, what is it about Jo? In short, the settings and the characters. Take the Detective Harry Hole novels, centered in Oslo. In that series, Nesbo switches effortlessly between description — of both people and places — and action, between local colour and the colour red: blood and guts.

Some readers find that Nesbo overdoes the blood and guts. Admittedly, there’s never a shortage of corpses in his crime novels but I accept his version of the Norwegian underworld, overblown though it may be. As for Nesbo’s characters, Harry Hole is a flagship protagonist: dark, at times unlikeable, yet uncompromising and driven, a man with raging booze and drug habits encased in a solid ethical core. In a sense, Nesbo’s Hole novels are morality tales; good struggles against evil, not only within Hole himself but also outside of Hole, in the world at large.

If I have to pick a representative Harry Hole novel, it’s The Son (2014), which, on one level, is a retake of a central Christian myth — the Son trying to please the Father. To be expected with Nesbo, there’s a tsunami of blood. On the other hand, there’s a deep story here, a saga of good and evil full of pithy observations and a flood of emotional scenes.

Not a fan of blood and guts? Try a non-Harry-Hole novel like Midnight Sun (2015). Although certainly not a cozy mystery, to quote the LA Times, it’s a “softer, gentler Nesbo – as far as that goes.”

Jo Nesbo on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jo_Nesb%C3%B8