The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton

In the introduction to the book Larry Taunton worries about exploiting his dead friend. And he should not have dismissed those concerns and written this book. It is the kind of manipulative, predatory, and piously insulting thing that gives Christians a bad name. He puts words in Christopher Hitchens' mouth and assigns him thoughts that he can't repudiate from the grave. The author seems to ignore the possibility that Hitchens just liked hearing people of conviction talk about their beliefs, and wasn't himself discovering he may share that faith. The notion that he might have just enjoyed debate is hardly considered. An intellectually curious person can want to learn more about faith, but still not feel it. Atheists are often just as intrigued as they are disgusted by people who believe in God. 

Taunton would have the readers of this book believe that Christopher Hitchens was afraid to tell people he was dabbling in faith in his last few months for fear of disillusioning his acolytes. This strikes this ardent lover of the work of Hitchens as absurd. He was about as shy and retiring as a gun. And he thrived on controversy. This is a man who wrote a book in which he called Mother Teresa a hypocrite and a fame whore. He ardently supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while his liberal contemporaries where aghast and convinced he'd lost his mind. And once on the Bill Mauer show when he was giving his hawkish thoughts and the audience began to gasp and turn on him, he didn't equivocate. He gave the audience the finger. 

The author claims that Hitchens metaphorically kept two sets of books, one set public and the other set private. And his tentative embrace of faith was something he kept private. It was something he only expressed to Larry Taunton when there were no other witnesses. This is very convenient for Mr. Taunton. 

Christopher Hitchens worried about someone crediting a deathbed conversion to him. So he inoculated his legacy with this statement, "The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain. I can't guarantee that such an entity wouldn't make such a ridiculous remark. But no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a ridiculous remark." The author of this book claims he only said that to make his atheist friends happy. When did Hitch give a crap about making anyone happy?

As a person of faith, I would feel like a hypocrite if I didn't at least entertain the possibility that Christopher Hitchens towards the end of his life, facing the black implacable wall of death,  wanted to believe there was something on the other side of it. But I find it much more likely that Mr. Taunton wants to believe it, and he heard what he wanted to hear, and the thought he could sell some books by convincing his fellow Evangelicals that it is impossible for man to live a dissolute life without higher purpose and meaning, and die unrepentant without the crutch that is God. This is a very cynical book.

 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

 I have no idea what body part those flowers are sitting on

I have no idea what body part those flowers are sitting on

I am a member of a book club. And that means sometimes I am invited to read a book I'm a bit 'meh' on. Anna Karenina is such a book. This is the price I pay for good company and a few drinks.  

I find that I struggle to read the classics if I know too much about the story. What can motivate someone to read over a thousand pages with no chance of surprises? Bragging rights, dependable storytelling, and the fact that the ebook was only $0.99. 

Anna Karenina is exactly as advertised. Rich Russian lady commits adultery, this turns out to only make her happy in the short-term, and then she kills herself. The only surprise was how much of the book is not in fact centered on the plight of our beautiful and immoral protagonist. Konstantin Levin is the standard stand-in for the author in a Russian novel. Through the character of Levin the author criticizes the aristocracy and their loose way of living and the frivolity of their lives. He constantly opines on how much better it is to live a simple life of hard work and farming and the nobility of the peasants. At one point in the book Konstantin is considering marrying a peasant girl, but of course he doesn't. He marries an actual Princess, but teaches her how to live his simple life. It is hard not to think of the cultural revolution a few decades down the line that will find many of those peasants in even harder circumstances and the aristocrats scrambling to hold on to the last remnant of their wealth and society. 

Books about infidelity, and especially infidelity committed by women, used to have to end in tragedy or they would be considered morally compromising for the public to read. And this book did not abandon that convention. Of course Anna is driven to commit a desperate act by the loss of her place in society and the waning love of her young lover. The message of the book is shouted for the last 100 pages. STAY IN A STABLE ALBEIT BORING MARRIAGE. PASSION WILL ONLY LEAD TO RUIN.  AND HARVEST WHEAT INSTEAD OF GOING TO PARTIES. I love books in which a woman breaks with convention and pursues her desires. But I hate books where she is punished for it and we are tacitly told we will be punished too.

I will concede that the language is beautiful and if you're going to be bored and annoyed, be bored and annoyed while reading something by Leo Tolstoy. And I found myself so hungry for the balls and clothes and outings that I did something I don't ordinarily do...I watched a film adaptation. I recommend the 2012 film staring Keira Knightly. It is a bit garish and sometimes the staging is distracting but it made a nice companion piece to the book. 

 

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

When I finished this book my first thought was, "Damn she's good." My second and third thoughts involved frustration and disappointment. I am frustrated because I don't necessarily have time to read all Zadie Smith's other books right now, and disappointed that I waited so long to read her at all. 

I think what had kept me away was that I didn't think her voice would appeal to me and that her books might be the type we all pretend to love but we don't really get them. (I'm looking at you Infinite JestThe plots of all her books are rooted in London and involve immigrant tales. I'm as American as a gal can get and the immigrant experience always strikes me as so different in Great Britain. This fear that I wouldn't be able to connect to the story kept me away. I'm glad I eventually took the risk.  If her other books are half as good as this one she will have a fan for life.

I adored the warmth and affection she has for her characters. Even when someone is acting out, even when they're being awful you can feel the love she has for her creations. Often in books antagonistic and contrary characters are presented in a way that as a reader I don't feel like I am given the choice but to hate them. The author points at the monster they've created and and we all boo and hiss. While Zadie Smith creates a character and makes them feel like family. Members of your family may be terrible and do things you hate but you see the entire person, all the good and bad, and all your history with them. And you can't afford to hate your family because you're in it together. And that is how I felt about the characters in Swing Time. I didn't always like the things they did but we were going to be together for 453 pages. We were going to fall in and out of love and disagree and I wasn't going to like them, but we were in it together.

I can't remember reading a book recently that didn't have a single poorly drawn character or an implausible plot point or anything I would call a flaw. I find it easy to read a book and think of all the ways it could've been written better, but not Swing Time.

My sole complaint is that there was so much tension and foreshadowing of secrets and betrayals. And when the secrets came out and the betrayals happened I was a bit underwhelmed. In this way, and this way only, if I'd known nothing about the author would I have known Swing Time was written by a woman. In my own life as a woman I have seen something small feel devastating. A paper cut is minor but it can hurt a thousand times worse when it's in a tender place. And the women in the novel hurt each other in each woman's most tender place. 

Zadie Smith and I are of the same generation and her cultural shout outs and touchstones were appreciated and admired. And as a woman of color the way she writes about ethnicity and constantly placing yourself and asserting your identity was both powerful and calming. Race politics can be frightening. We spend so much time trying not to step on a landmine. While the main character and her frenemy Tracey take it slowly and in bite-sized pieces. As if to say you don't have to be all the different parts of yourself all at once and it's okay to decide who you are and what your color means in that moment, and possibly be someone else a few moments later.  

This book has an amazing sense of location. The events of the book happen primarily in three places, London, New York, and a small African village. And I love a writer who is obviously not just creative but a great technician with language. I knew she was clever but I never saw her being clever. I never felt like she was trying. Much of the book talks about dance and how hard a dancer works to make it look effortless. I have no doubt Zadie Smith works hard but I didn't see it. It was smooth. It was ballet. I am applauding. 

Dear World...No More Mommy Memoirs/Blogs

I love moms. Who is my favorite person currently living? My mother. I can honestly say, “Some of my best friends are moms.” I know more women with children than without. So this isn’t one of my player hating, jealous, ugh “Babies ain’t all that! Whateves!” blog entries. The thing giving me the red ass is the proliferation of mommy memoirs/blogs. Women have been having babies as long as we have been mammals. And whatever primitive thing we were when we crawled out of the primordial ooze also reproduced and nurtured it’s young. Therefore unless you are raising your young in one of the following hypothetical situations: My baby was stolen by feral dogs, and now that he’s home he still refuses to be housebroken; My 6 year old  has Benjamin Button disease and keeps buying beer for his older brother; I have never been pregnant or adopted a child, and have no fucking clue who this person is, or why she insists that I make her a grilled cheese sandwich…You have nothing interesting or new to say on the subject of motherhood. All you’re giving other mothers is a chance to admit their own fears, and telling their stories back to them in a more funny or erudite way. 

Because you reader, usually get me, I feel like I understand you. So I know what you’re thinking…Umm. If I don’t like mommy memoirs/blogs why do I read them? The answer? I try not to. I buy books and have them snuck by me. The two most dramatic instances were “Yes Please” by Amy Poehler and “Mile Markers” by Kristin Armstrong. I was aware of the fact that Amy Poehler has two children, but I don’t really think of her as a mom. I think of her as a comedian, actress, and women’s advocate. And I assumed her book would be for the most part about that. But nope. I read about her labor and delivery story, her attempts to get pregnant, the mommy wars, and how hard it is to raise children. And I didn’t fucking care. And to be honest I’d be surprised if any women I know who are mothers would’ve wanted to read it. I don’t feel like anyone would’ve picked up “Yes Please” looking for a mommy memoir. The book was marketed as a Bad Ass Motherfucker of awesome singing her song and telling her whole life, as Roberta Flack would put it. She has only been a mother for six years, and it is the least interesting thing about her. Why would it be 60% of her book? And if you’re reading “Mile Markers” by Kristin Armstrong because you love running, you are going to walk away with a raging case of literary blue balls. She’s going to get you excited and then leave you hanging time and time again. I don’t want you to think I want the maternal female voice silenced. I don’t. I just want it to have its place like the Star Wars fanatic voice, Clown P*porn voice, or the White Supremacist voice. You have to want it and look for it. Plus I would like to think that if people put down the books and turn off their IPads women will talk directly to each other and communicate. And that would result in the sense of community that women so desperately want that the blogosphere is a poor substitute for.  Plus I’ll be less grumpy. 

And wouldn’t that be nice? I hear you saying, “Whatever! I bet you $100 that if her cobweb filled root cellar of a womb can still miraculously produce fruit she’ll start a mommy blog ten minutes after the stick turns blue.” I will take that bet. I am very self-aware and honest with myself. If I should ever catch a man, I will be the most obnoxious Bridezilla in recorded history. I’ve waited nearly 40 years for this dude. You will know his name. You will see his face in your dreams. There is no detail about him that you will not commit to memory through unwilling Clockwork Orange–style  discussions. I will post Facebook pictures of us doing everything except pooping. I have grown lonely and weird and if I find love the entire world will have to endure my joy. But if I am blessed with motherhood. I’ll be content to share that experience with a small cadre of friends and family. You’ll never convince me that motherhood isn’t as beautiful and fulfilling if you can’t endanger your child’s safety by splashing them all over the internet and telling every detail of their life to strangers. But you are welcome to try. But as previously stated, you’d have to sneak it by me by ostensibly writing about something else. 

 Again. Big Fan of moms. Here's a picture of me with mine.

Again. Big Fan of moms. Here's a picture of me with mine.